The Wind of Change Must Blow Waste Further up the Agenda

By Jonas Törnblom

Climate change, a shrinking planet and the increasing threat of weather-related disasters are problems that are not going away, but we still have time to manage their effects and reduce the likelihood of environmental and public health disasters. We can no longer afford to brush crucial public service issues under the carpet – instead, Jonas Törnblom argues, we need to push our waste management systems underground.

As someone who has worked in the waste industry for many years I’ve come to learn that waste is arguably one of the most overlooked and underappreciated elements of modern day public services.

Generally speaking, most people do not put a great deal of consideration into how their waste is collected; they just care about the fact that it gets collected. And this is where the paradoxical nature of waste collection lies. Or maybe it’s just human nature, as illustrated by the phrase “you don’t now what you’ve got until it’s gone”. The fact is that waste tends to be the weak relation – until something goes wrong, of course. And when it goes wrong, waste collection suddenly becomes one of the most – if not the most – important aspects of public service provision.

In the world of waste collection, there are rarely any alternative collection programmes. There are no second choices and there are certainly no “back up” plans.

In most cases we have back-up systems. Take electricity, for example. In the developed world power cuts occur relatively infrequently, however they do occur. And when they do there are alternatives such as batteries, candles and generators on hand to soften the blow. Education is not without choice, either, as parents are, to an extent, able to choose the school that they feel would benefit their child’s personality type and ability. Even public funded healthcare has an alternative in most countries in the form of private healthcare. In the world of waste collection, however, there are rarely any alternative collection programmes. There are no second choices and there are certainly no “back up” plans. When it’s gone, it’s gone.


The UK’s ‘Winter of Discontent’

This has been demonstrated time and time again over recent years. In the UK, the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79 saw widespread strikes by public sector trade unions during the coldest winter to occur for 16 years. Waste collectors, who were among those campaigning for pay rises, had been on strike for a considerable amount of time and it didn’t take long before local authorities began to run out of space to store the growing waste mountain. In London, the heart of the West End, Leicester Square, became the main depository for waste, which quickly led to rat infestations and prompted concerns over public health.



Part of the three-quarter mile backlog of rotting rubbish in London’s Finsbury Park, waiting to be cleared in 1979.

Similarly, in 2010, industrial action in France led to almost 10,000 tonnes of rubbish piling up on the streets of Marseilles, which contributed to a total cost to France of £350 million a day. The political fallout was also damaging for the then President, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose leadership ratings fell dramatically as a result.

Industrial action is dependent on the political landscape and cultural influences of any given point in time, which makes it impossible to predict. However, in the 21st century one thing is certain; health crises as a direct result of rotting waste piled up in public spaces is unacceptable, unsustainable and not conducive to attracting overseas visitors, either as tourists or on a commercial level.


Riding the Storm

Perhaps what is a more disconcerting prospect when it comes to waste collection and its ability to weather a storm (both politically and literally), is the ongoing issue of climate change.

Hurricane Sandy, a storm that climate scientists say was exacerbated by global warming, killed 72 Americans, affected 24 states, knocked out power to more than seven million people and caused an estimated $70 billion in damage. Interestingly, when Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey coastline, destroying homes and entire streets, the Envac automated underground waste collection system remained operational. In fact the system, which was incorporated into Roosevelt Island in Manhattan in 1971, was one of the only remaining public services to remain operational throughout the entire disaster.

Whilst the system continued its underground automated collection cycles, using airflow to transport waste from the 33 inlets throughout Roosevelt Island to a central waste collection station, traditional waste collection trucks were being used to remove storm-related rubbish, such as furniture, abandoned cars and rubble, from the streets.

Had Roosevelt Island not used Envac and instead opted for manual, and arguably antiquated, collection methods such as the traditional truck and tip approach used by the majority of countries throughout the world, the job of cleaning up would have been even more challenging and posed an even greater risk to public health.

The Envac system on Roosevelt Island currently manages eight tonnes of waste from almost 14,000 residents throughout the community on a daily basis. Waste is deposited in inlets located throughout the site and held underground in a network of pipes. When full, or at a pre-programmed time, the waste is transported by vacuum technology, at speeds of up to 70kph and across distances as long as 2km, to the central waste collection station. At every stage of the process from when the user deposits the waste, everything is stored, moved and managed underground.

Having been in operation for over 40 years the system had already experienced bouts of severe weather, such as in the winter of 2010/2011 when it was the only waste management technology to provide uninterrupted collections in Stockholm. Waste collection in areas that were not connected to the system was impossible due to snow heaps along the roads, which led to waste lining the streets for almost three weeks. For Envac and those using the system, it was business as usual.


The Writing’s on the Wall

In a report entitled ‘Projected Atlantic hurricane surge threat from rising temperatures’, the authors argue that modeling has demonstrated that for every one degree Celsius increase in global warming, there is likely to be between a two and seven percent increase in the number of storm surges comparable to those of Hurricane Katrina.1

Equally, Climate Communication, a non-profit science and outreach project dedicated to furthering the scientific understanding of Earth systems and environmental change, has stated that Atlantic hurricanes are likely to increase in strength as sea surface temperatures increase. It also predicts that there will be an average increase in the maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones of two to 11 percent, which will see the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes double by the end of the century.

Envac is undoubtedly an ideal solution for the future of waste collection. How could it not be with its ability to occupy underground space, thus freeing up valuable aboveground space?

Interestingly, all this is against the backdrop of a shrinking planet as a direct result of less developable space and a growing population that needs to inhabit it. Let’s not forget that the UK population during the Winter of Discontent was 56 million. It currently stands at 64 million, which means that in in only 25 years the population has increased by eight million people. The number of people living in London alone has increased by over one million in the same timeframe and is expected to hit 9.4 million by 2022. Not only has the population grown, but also the amount of waste we generate has too. If Leicester Square had problems in the 70s then can you imagine the impact of strike action in line with today’s population and waste volumes?

Yes, strike action is unpredictable but a growing population, a shrinking surface area and global warming isn’t. This, in turn, means that we can no longer leave one of the most important public services to chance. It is time for planners, architects and local governments around the globe to face up to the challenges that waste collection in the 21st century represents. Essentially, we need to be smarter when it comes to planning the waste infrastructure of tomorrow.

Envac is undoubtedly an ideal solution for the future of waste collection. How could it not be with its ability to occupy underground space, thus freeing up valuable aboveground space? How can a system that takes heavily polluting waste vehicles off the road and reduces carbon emissions by 90 percent not factor into planning phases of local governments and municipalities throughout the world? More importantly, why wouldn’t a system that can remain operational in the very worst conditions not be a priority for areas with a history of being affected by adverse weather, or those that are at high risk?

Envac was launched in 1961 and has had the benefit of over 50 years to prove itself as an effective and successful technology. However, in my view it still has the potential to become a disruptive technology. What has allowed the system to slowly infiltrate the waste infrastructures of countries across the globe over the last five decades is the fact that there is still a choice; manual aboveground collection or underground automated waste collection. In a matter of only a couple of decades there will be no choice. Underground technology will be the norm out of necessity and as a result of overbearing external factors, such as climate change, population booms and the hyper density that cities will subsequently face. And when that time comes, not only will Envac enjoy the equivalent of a technological rebirth, but we will also all wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

About the Author

Jonas-Tornblom,-Senior-Vice-President-for-Marketing-and-Communication-at-EnvacJonas Törnblom is Senior Vice President at Envac AB. An environmental industry innovator, thought leader and driver for change, Jonas has built a reputation as a champion of sustainability within the built environment. Jonas has chaired the Swedish Environmental Technology Network’s steering committee, helped develop the SymbioCity concept, and recently initiated the Sweden China GreenTech Alliance. Jonas has been at Envac, a global leader in the vacuum waste collection industry, since 2001. Envac invented the automated underground vacuum waste system, which can be found in residential areas, business premises, town centres, industrial kitchens, hospitals and airports worldwide. Envac has 40 offices globally.


1. Aslak Grinsted, John C. Moore and Svetlana Jevrejeva.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.