Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Garbage collection should suck

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Since the dawn of prehistory, humans have been creating garbage. It was not until the Middle Ages, however, that the position of paid garbage collector was first established in Britain.

Called "rakers," these men were employed to rake up the trash in the street on a weekly basis. In 1875, England's Public Health Act gave municipal authority for waste collection, and the concept of a movable garbage receptacle was created.

To stem the spread of disease, by the early 20th century, governments on both sides of the Atlantic began to implement public-waste pickup, which has grown increasingly important over the last century thanks to consumerism and a disposable culture.

Today, cities employ an elaborate network of collection and disposal facilities to deal with the 30 million tonnes of garbage generated each year in Canada. Unfortunately, these systems are not without their problems.

Large bins outside apartment complexes or office towers often smell and overflow, for example, while the fleet of garbage trucks and personnel cost millions of dollars per year -- and contribute to traffic congestion and carbon pollution.

Despite these flaws, this conventional method of gathering refuse is the norm across the country.

But in downtown Montreal, the foundation is being laid for a totally new way of collecting garbage.

And it's going to suck.

Beneath rue Ste. Catherine, a 1,500-kilometre network of pipes will make up the largest vacuum waste-removal system in the country. Citizens will put their trash or recyclables into receptacles placed around the city centre, a trap door will open, and within seconds, the refuse will be flying along at 80 kilometres underneath the street to the recycling centre or another waste-management facility.

The system, which will eventually whisk away the garbage generated by 2,350 residences, a number of restaurants, and passersby taking in the various events and festivals happening in the downtown, is designed by Envac, a Swedish firm that has been sucking up garbage for half a century.

The company has installed its products in more than 600 cities around the world, including Roosevelt Island, N.Y., back in the 1970s, where to this day it continues to serve the neighbourhood's 14,000 residents

Proponents argue suction-waste facilities are superior to the traditional chuck-and-truck method in just about every area that matters. With trash collection automated and happening underground, garbage trucks can be taken off the streets, reducing traffic congestion and noise.

Moreover, though the Envac systems do require electricity, energy use is lower than if a fleet of fuel-powered vehicles were sent out. Smelly, overflowing bins are also a thing of the past, even during the holiday season or inclement weather.

(When NYC shut down during the snowstorm of 2010, Roosevelt Island was the only area to enjoy uninterrupted garbage service.)

Perhaps most enticing of all, while initial outlay is obviously more expensive than for traditional waste collection, the running and maintenance costs are considerably lower, saving municipalities money overall.

Certainly, such a system would likely not be well-received everywhere, as most private homeowners would probably not appreciate having to walk their garbage to the end of the block to toss it down the chute.

In apartment or condo complexes, however, as well as in public areas such as downtowns, or even in smaller spaces such as an office park, shopping mall, or hospital (eliminating the need for environmentally unfriendly plastic garbage bags in these buildings), vacuum-waste disposal could be both appropriate and advantageous.

Despite having only eight per cent of the world's population, it is estimated North Americans are responsible for generating as much as half of the planet's waste, meaning both Canadians and Americans should look seriously at cutting back on how much trash they create. Nevertheless, as there will always be a need for waste disposal, it should be done as efficiently as possible.

While the traditional garbage truck will likely continue to dominate, it is time to consider whether vacuum-refuse management also has a role to play in the modern Canadian city -- either as part of new developments or retrofitted during the renovation of existing areas. Because as numerous surveys have shown, residents living in areas with Envac system are more satisfied with their waste collection than those with conventional collection procedures, there is good reason to believe Montreal is not the only place in Canada that could benefit from a disposal system that, truly, sucks.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J1

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