The ClosedLoops team is developing a pneumatic waste-removal system for the High Line.
Picture a far-off Utopian future: A New Yorker throws away a piece of trash in a park—maybe an apple core or some plastic packaging—and it’s automatically sucked through a vacuum-like tube that runs beneath the streets, whisked away to a storage facility where it’s appropriately sorted and disposed of. No garbage bags on the curb, no garbage trucks in the street.
That’s exactly the kind of technology that could be coming to New York’s High Line park.
To be fair, this kind of trash collection is not all that futuristic—plenty of cities in Europe have been using the method for decades, and there are even small pockets of it in the U.S. (Roosevelt Island and Disney World are prime examples). But no pneumatic trash system in the U.S. serves a populace approaching that of New York City.
New Yorkers produce 14 million tons of waste per year. The city is an incredibly efficient trash-production machine with a serpentine process for getting rid of it. It’s not uncommon to see garbage trucks from three or four different companies picking up trash on the same block, needlessly increasing the number of miles driven to accomplish the task, says Benjamin Miller, a former director of policy planning for New York Sanitation and part of the team researching pneumatic tubes in New York. Additionally, there’s no limit to the number of bags New Yorkers can put out on the curb, and as a result, garbage piles high in the street even in the swankiest parts of the city.
“In terms of trash pick-up, New York is like the Wild West,” Miller says. “We’ve got this system that’s been handed down to us through the ages, and we haven’t changed it.”
And that system isn’t working. The trash problem in New York is a well-documented phenomenon, with lots of proposed solutions. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious effort to send “zero waste” to landfills by 2030, and the city is in the process of rolling out an organic-waste collection program.
But pneumatic tubes present the potential to streamline all of these efforts and make trash collection easier, cleaner, and greener. Miller and his team at ClosedLoops have been researching the possibility for five years, and are now in the middle of a pre-development project that could install pneumatic tubes at the High Line park. The park is an ideal spot to test the system out, because the tube could be strung along the bottom of the viaduct, avoiding any need to tunnel through streets. The system would suck trash from the park and its surrounding buildings through tubes that would eventually deposit waste into a large terminal, where it would then get picked up by trucks or freight trains and carried away to out-of-state landfills.
Right now, “the problem of moving waste a mile-and-a-half from the north end to the south end [of the High Line] is significant,” says Miller. “You’re having to drag carts a mile-and-a-half, bring them into the building, and take them by elevator down to the street. It’s troublesome for the park.”
Pneumatic tubes could fix that problem. If they’re ever implemented on a larger scale, they could also decrease the number of trucks needed to come pick up trash and ease the environmental impact of the process. Even better: a pneumatic system could keep track of who deposits trash when, meaning that eventually, the utility could automatically generate a bill according to a household’s use, like they do with water. That would incentivize people to produce less waste.
It will likely be several years before the High Line project is out of pre-development, and many more years after that until the tubes themselves are installed and the system is up and running. But if all goes well, far enough into the future, New York City might finally get rid of those awful curbside garbage bags, to the delight of pedestrians everywhere.