By Aaron Rutkoff
Hidden below ground and running between the 16 apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island is a system of pneumatic tubes that propels household waste at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. It’s a futuristic solution to the urban problem of trash collection, a grandiose and somewhat elegant advance over the fleet of unsightly sanitation trucks trolling city streets today.
“Everyone kind of grabs on to the quirky Jetsons side of it,” says Juliette Spertus, an architect who has spent two years researching the system. “People assume it’s a relic and not an answer for the future.” Her research is on display at the “Fast Trash!” exhibit at a gallery on Roosevelt Island.
The system was built 35 years ago during a period that saw city and state governments involved in Utopian projects to remake what was then called Welfare Island. According to Spertus, the system was designed with a 40-year lifespan.
Most island resident are scarcely aware that the system exists, according to Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.
Here’s how it works:
One of Roosevelt Island’s residents tosses a bag of trash down a chute inside an apartment building. The trash, rather than landing in a bin, piles atop a vacuum tube. Five times a day, engineers at a control center open the valves in each building and suck the collected garbage through 20-inch pipes that lead to a collection point at the southern end of the island.
At the collection point, the garbage spins once more -– this time around a cyclone separator that pulls heavy objects apart from the lighter debris -– and then everything is packaged in containers for pick up.
Thanks to the tube system, Department of Sanitation trucks make no house calls on Roosevelt Island.
And here’s a short film about all the objects that get stuck inside the system. (The entire 10-minute documentary by Greg Whitmore can be seen here):
Roosevelt Island’s tubes were the first municipal-scale implementation of the technology in the U.S. -– the only other one was in Disney World. “It’s like a time capsule, like if someone rolled out a working Model-T,” Spertus says. “It was designed as a model, only no one paid attention to it.”
ENVAC, the Swedish company that built the Roosevelt Island trash system, is still around and vaguely embarrassed by the absence of recycling and other modern touches. But despite the quirk factor — trash hurtling through tubes! — Spertus wants people to see the serious side of the island’s fast-moving waste.
In a way, Roosevelt Island’s garbage system offers a glimpse of an alternative New York, one that sought technology-driven solutions to urban problems. “Basically, trucks were cheaper,” Spertus says. It wasn’t the city’s only foray into tubes. From 1897 to 1953, a pneumatic mail system served parts of Manhattan.
Spertus’s exhibit asks us to contemplate going back to this future. “There’s not a lot of thought about how to incorporate our maintenance systems into the design of our urban spaces,” she says. Roosevelt Island’s trash system might look like a dead-end technology, but parts of Barcelona, Seoul, Stockholm and Hong Kong all use the modern descendants of the same system today. In that sense, Roosevelt Island’s tube-based trash is “as cutting-edge today as it was in the 70s,” Spertus says. Modernizing the island’s system would cost $6 million, according to Spertus.
It’s hard to imagine a city that’s closing libraries and senior centers investing in a pneumatic garbage infrastructure. But it’s also hard to imagine New York City’s garbage being hauled around in the same way forever.