The Art of Moving Trash

The Art of Moving Trash

When most people think of garbage, it’s foul odor and rotting fruit peel that come to mind, not world-class design and innovative thinking. But as cities like New York find ways to handle trash more sustainably, different approaches are being tried, including reinventing old technologies in new ways and building waste-processing facilities in urban centers that can generate their own heat.

One such facility is already a star. The Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn, New York, was designed by Greeley and Hansen, Hazen and Sawyer, and Malcolm Pirnie, environmental engineering consultants, in association with Ennead Architects. Completed in 2008, the plant consists of eight giant, stainless-steel “eggs” that are illuminated at night and visible from the other boroughs. Visiting the so-called Egg Beaters has become something of an attraction, and the wastewater plant even stars in a new short film, The Art of Waste, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The New York Times has hailed the plant as a sign that “the modern renaissance of New York is complete.”


It is a surprising distinction, but such praise for the design of new waste-processing facilities may become more common as cities look to modernize their current waste-management strategies with an eye to heightening design quality, sustainability, and accountability.

For decades, garbage trucks hauled New York’s trash to the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. When the landfill closed in 2001, the city turned to exporting garbage to other states by truck, not a popular move. As American cities like San Francisco and Seattle add compost to their recycling programs, and European cities turn to new waste-to-energy plants, New York has lagged behind. According to an article in The New York Times last October, the city now recycles about 15 percent of the waste collected by the Department of Sanitation, primarily from residences, down from a peak of 23 percent in 2001.

Improvements are in the works. Observed Kendall Christiansen, the founding assistant director of New York City’s recycling program, “From the start, New York was a pioneer from a recycling perspective—but the program stagnated and didn’t keep looking forward to what the next thing to do was and the attention fell off.” He attributed the failure to innovate in part to the popularity of other sustainability initiatives like green building. But he believes that Mayor Bloomberg’s new waste management plan is a significant step in the right direction.

Upgrading New York’s waste management has long been on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s agenda. In 2006, his administration adopted a new strategy for solid waste removal. The plan emphasizes exporting garbage via barges and trains instead of by trucks and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 192,000 tons per year. In 2009, the Department of Sanitation added hybrid collection trucks—at a cost of $500,000 each (federal subsidies reimburse about half)—to cut emissions within the city, among the first in the country to do so.

In January, Bloomberg reiterated his administration’s commitment to overhauling the city’s waste management strategy during his State of the City address. He announced a goal to double the amount of residential waste diverted from landfills by 2017, and proclaimed, “We’ll explore the possibility of cleanly converting trash into renewable energy.”

Bloomberg’s plan promises to bring new facilities into the city by changing the local infrastructure for handling waste. One of them will be the Sunset Park recycling facility currently under construction in Brooklyn. The 11.5-acre complex will be situated on the edge of the Gowanus Canal, allowing barges to drop off and pick up materials. When completed, it will process 600 tons of glass, metal, and plastic every day.


Designed by architect Annabelle Selldorf, the facility indicates the newfound prominence of waste infrastructure in the urban landscape. Selldorf’s design raises the bar for infrastructure, using corrugated steel and translucent fiberglass panels, and an exposed steel frame in the tipping building where materials arrive. In 2010, the Public Design Commission praised the plan as “elegant and restrained.” Selldorf, who is known for her work on gallery spaces and luxury residences, said in an interview, “I think that the overall design is meant to be a pleasant surprise for people who expect a recycling facility to be just piles of metal and glass.”

While the facility is located in an industrial area, its relationship to the community was also an important consideration for Selldorf and the city’s recycling company, Sims Metal Management. “From the onset, public engagement was a desire that the client articulated,” she explained. In a further gesture of outreach, the complex will include an education center where students can learn about recycling and 3.5 acres of open space. Its construction is also part of a long-term plan to develop the waterfront district, known as the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Business Area.

In the past, waste infrastructure projects have rarely received a warm welcome from nearby residents, who imagine that they will bring odor, noise and pests. The result, according to environmental justice advocates, is that waste management facilities are disproportionately located in low-income communities that have less power to oppose them. The majority of New York City’s garbage is delivered to transfer stations in neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, which trucks must pass through.


Bloomberg’s plan attempts to address those inequalities by developing four new marine transfer stations in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. The stations, designed by Dattner Architects and engineers Greeley and Hansen, will transfer garbage from their respective boroughs onto barges to be shipped away. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance praised the plan for relieving the burden on neighborhoods where stations have historically been located.

But the stations exemplify just how difficult siting a waste project anywhere in the city can be. The proposed Upper East Side station, which will be located on 91st Street and the East River, has been at the center of numerous lawsuits and rallies for the past five years. Residents have opposed the project’s proximity to a public housing project and park with playing fields, but in December a judge dismissed a lawsuit against the station.

According to Bernard Zipprich, who led Dattner’s efforts on the marine transfer station program, environmental justice is one of the biggest challenges of building waste infrastructure in urban areas. He said that, for example, the station’s final design took community input into account. A screen wall for the station’s entrance ramp will block garbage trucks from view, and the design maintains the existing promenade along the East River for public use.


Internationally, waste infrastructure is attracting creative solutions that point to increased engagement among architects with the problem. In 2010 Bjarke Ingels of BIG unveiled a design for an incinerator that would double as a ski slope and recreational center in the center of Copenhagen. The plant went before a city council vote in December amid concerns it would be rejected over fear of carbon emissions.

In London, a study was commissioned in 2009 to develop a comprehensive plan to handle a whopping 85 percent of the city’s trash by 2020. Then the government changed and the deadline was moved to 2036, if ever. “Right now, waste management in London is a crazy free market affair with every borough selling off their trash to the cheapest bidder,” said Alun Jones, a partner at Dow Jones Architects, the firm that prepared the study in collaboration with Arup. “That means taking it down the Thames to the east and smearing it all over the countryside.” Sponsored by former mayor Ken Livingstone, “Rubbish in—Resources Out: Design Ideas for Waste Facilities in London” envisioned a range of innovative solutions including gasification and anaerobic digestion plants suitable for urban settings. With gasification, a thermal treatment plant burns waste in an oxygen-free environment releasing gas as usable energy. The anaerobic digesters—high-tech composting with bacteria—were shown located beneath parking towers with shops and gardens above; they too can provide heat and energy for their neighbors, or even biogas for cars. Jones said the idea was to design the plants as iconic markers in the city reminiscent of the gigantic graphic Ps in Tokyo that indicate parking lots. “They can be interesting buildings,” Jones added, “and it makes sense on so many levels, but the current economic organization of waste management is stacked against it.”

In Barcelona, ecoparks have proved successful at integrating mechanical and biological treatment technologies in settings that include marinas and residential developments. The city currently has three ecoparks that manage 60 percent of the waste produced by the city and provide enough energy for its own electricity needs with a plan to support some 800 nearby housing units as well. Guided tours of the plant are becoming a popular education destination.


Barcelona is also at the forefront with an old technology that’s new again—pneumatic tubes. Since its debut at the Olympic Village in 1992, an automated waste collection system beneath the city streets has been in operation throughout Barcelona. Residents and business owners deposit garbage into portholes on the street, and an underground network of pneumatic tubes whisks everything away to a collection plant. Organic waste gets diverted for conversion into biogas, which heats buildings while recyclables are picked up by truck. Albert Mateu, the a vice president at Envac, the Swedish company behind the pneumatic tubes, estimates that installation will be complete in seven years and one-third of Barcelona will have access to automated vacuum collection.

Barcelona was the first city to include vacuum collection in its official waste management strategy but the Jetsons-like system is catching on fast and has been exported abroad. Envac has put similar systems in Disney World and parts of London, Montreal, and Stockholm.

Rosina Abramson, Envac’s U.S. representative, said the company is working on feasibility studies to retrofit several New York public spaces with the latest in pneumatic tube technology. The underside of the High Line may become a super highway for Chelsea Market’s refuse, while a system of trash tubes beneath the Coney Island boardwalk that Envac is planning with the New York City Economic Development Corporation may ultimately extend to the surrounding amusement parks, ball fields, and the aquarium.

In fact, New York City has had its own pneumatic network on Roosevelt Island since 1975, and it is still in operation today. Envac, who was responsible for the system, is also consulting with Cornell University on their new applied science campus planned for the south tip of the island. “Cornell has a specific energy management plan and independent policies on waste disposal,” said Abramson. “The new Envac system would be specially designed to deal with their campus environment and needs like servicing laboratories.”

It is new developments, like Cornell’s New York campus, and dense districts that are prime candidates for pneumatic systems, Carlos Vazquez, Barcelona’s sanitation director, is careful to point out. At a New York University symposium in 2010, Vasquez explained, “Pneumatics arranges and releases public space. It is the best advantage.” He listed noise reduction and decreasing heavy traffic as two other benefits.

If architect Juliette Spertus had her way, other parts of the city besides Roosevelt Island would get pneumatics, too. In 2010, Spertus curated Fast Trash, an exhibition about automated vacuum waste collection on Roosevelt Island and in other cities. She is currently working on two studies with CUNY’s University Transportation Research Center that examine the costs and benefits of upgrading the system on Roosevelt Island, and retrofitting subway tunnels and viaducts with pneumatic tubes. “It’s not the cheapest option,” she admitted. “Barcelona chose to do it because the environmental benefits were so great. One challenge is figuring out where to do it, and another is the financing.”

Pneumatics is not the only sustainable technology under discussion. After integrating cleaner and better-designed waste collection systems into the city, the next frontier for New York is converting waste to energy. Methane is already being collected from decomposing trash at Fresh Kills, and the administration is studying other ways to move from just managing waste to capitalizing on it. Waste as an asset? New York City is already sucked in.