The New Economy speaks with Jonas Törnblom, Envac Group, about radical urban solutions
All over the world, cities are faced with the same growing problem; how to get increasing volumes of rubbish out of an ever more crowded area. Well Envac Group believes they have found the sustainable solution – vacuum∞based underground pipe networks which not only remove trash, but eliminate noise, traffic, collection rooms and containers in the street. So how did they hit on this idea?
For Envac, it all started back in 1961. Its then predecessor company which had expertise in dust vacuum systems, wondered whether solid waste could be moved in this way within a hospital. It turns out that it could and some 50 years later, that hospital still operates the same system.
Today, Envac has 650 employees and 35 offices in 18 countries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia and its 700 systems serve 800,000 homes, 32,000 hospital patients, offices, airports, hotels and catering facilities.
This type of waste collection is a radical departure, because unlike other utilities and public amenities like water and sewage, trash collection hasn’t really changed since the Middle Ages. Even then, town-dwellers had to get rid of their rubbish, stored in the streets and people were employed to take it away, albeit not too effectively.
However environmental concerns, health and safety and rising living standards have changed the way we look at trash and the urban environment altogether. Since the 90s, this has led to great interest from around the world in Envac’s systems. It has been mainly driven by the move in Western countries to recycling, which requires additional refuse space to separate different wastes. For example, the green bin is for paper, the brown bin is for kitchen waste and the blue bin is for glass. With cross-contamination, i.e. consumers getting it wrong, it’s not always a success and some modern day city∞dwellers are quite resentful of having to give over so much of their own space and time to recycling.
Another driver towards this technology has been the rising living standards in hot and humid climates. High temperatures make it very difficult to leave rubbish on the street for long because of the odours it creates, the public health hazards it could engender and last but not least, the negative visual impact on the street scene. And as people have become richer in Southern Europe and South East Asia, they not only consume more, they generate more waste and that waste tends to rise in volume faster than its actual weight.
Add to this the benefit that you don’t have to employ dustbin collectors to drag, carry and lift waste in awkward positions. Theirs is a hard and risky profession with one of the highest accident rates for manual labourers.
So when you add in the rise in traffic volumes that most cities have, space is clearly at a premium and in decline. A tipping point is reached and storing large quantities of waste on the street becomes no longer a viable option.
Hammarby Sjöstad, just south-east of Stockholm stands out as a showcase of Envac’s technology in action. It has vacuum systems that remove 15 tons a day of residual, food waste and paper through 25,000 metres of pipe. Not only do the residents enjoy living there, people come from all over the world to see Hammarby and they like it too.
And then there’s the Envac system situated around London’s Wembley Stadium, where 200 homes have so far been built out of a planned 4,200. With the high recycling and frequent rubbish removal the system delivers, this has reduced refuse lorry miles by up to 90 percent, and there is just one single refuse collection station.
Today Envac is doing well but it was some time before the technology went beyond Sweden’s borders. The first country to adopt it was Spain, mainly due to the demands of recycling and high construction rates until 2008. Future growth is most likely to be in South Asia. South Korea is the fastest growing market right now and China is expected to be a big market, because they have the same challenges of fast urbanisation; high temperatures and humid climates and the type of waste which easily deteriorates – organic food waste which just doesn’t store very well.
Indeed, Envac sees great opportunity in the whole of South East Asia while interest is growing in the Middle East which has its similar climatic challenges.
In all cases, a big possibility exists to bring in the technology simultaneously when cities are renewing underground infrastructure like sewage, gas, water, electricity or laying fibre optic cables. In these circumstances Envac can retrofit its technology at the same time at much lower cost.
The demand for Envac’s underground trash networks is strongest from a developer or a community or municipality which has a high ambition in terms of sustainability. Their goals are to minimise traffic, reduce CO2 emissions and embrace technological solutions to do so. There must of course exist a high degree of density for the said location – Envac reckons with buildings of at least four stories high and a customer with a real desire to increase recycling.
There are also substantial long-term cost savings to be had. First of all is the space. Envac estimates that it can reduce space requirements for waste for each dwelling by between 0.5 and one square metre on the inside and outside of each flat. So in a development of a 1,000 homes, that equates to an extra 500 and 1,000 square metres, usually on the ground floor which can be given over to shops or other public amenities. What’s more, in a commercial setup, no one has to be tasked with picking up and emptying bins.
For all that, the advantages of the Envac system are not all about money. Almost everywhere it has been deployed, the users very much appreciate it. They like the fact that it is a 24∞ hour∞a∞day waste disposal system and very near to their homes. The system means that you can be more flexible in where you locate your waste disposal points and you can make them more attractive to look at too. And because it’s easier for users to get rid of their rubbish, purity of the recyclables have increased hugely – up to over 96 percent in some cases. And no one but no one misses the heavy trucks coming down the street in the morning to pick up bins, which can be a risk for children, an eyesore and a source of major congestion for road-users.
To date, there have been no accidents with the technology. Some people worry about people getting sucked down a vacuum tube but the opening is so small that you can’t get a human being in there. Occasionally, valuables have been thrown in by mistake and they have been retrieved. The bottom line is that each porthole is only emptied for 10 seconds, two or three times a day. So the likelihood that you’ll lose something is very low as long as you tell someone about it so it can be recovered.
Envac’s business today is split between 70 percent residential and the remaining 30 percent fairly equally between hospitals, airports and commercial sites. In the future, it’s anticipated that there will be more and more mixed urban developments for living and working.
It’s also likely that with the onset of regulation in the years to come, businesses and hospitals will have to start taking recycling as seriously as residential home-occupiers and their employees, and with Envac they won’t have to handle the waste as much as they used to.
Whilst the ideal situation is to put Envac’s technology into a new build, there is plenty of scope for retrofitting to existing old cities. Spain for example, has brought it in for 15 of its historic city centres – cities like Barcelona. This matters because modern people may love to look at and live amongst old buildings, but they want to live with modern services too. Like most infrastructure, Envac technology is often a large investment but it’s a permanent solution to urban waste handling.
Recently Envac completed retrofitting 10 percent of Macau’s city centre – the first retrofit in Asia. As a city whose revenues are largely derived from tourists who enjoy gambling, the authorities knew the City had to be kept looking attractive by keeping the waste out of sight.
Equally, Envac technology can also go hand-in-hand with urban regeneration projects in deprived city sink estates, typically built in the 60s and 70s in Western Europe. In these developments, waste points often become a target for gangs of troublemakers to set fire to, and collecting refuse becomes a personal risk to the collectors.
In any case, in Odense in Denmark, in an area called Vollsmose, it even got so bad that the municipal waste collection authority said they were no longer prepared to go there anymore. In early 2000 renovation began on the estate and waste chutes were connected with the waste vacuum system and thanks to this and other measures like educating environmental ambassadors the cleanliness of the estate was transformed. There is no littering any longer and just one person works one hour a day compared to two persons seven hours a day, three days a week.
Fast-urbanising developing countries on the other hand will not take to this technology overnight. The largest obstacle to it for them is the very low wages they currently pay for waste collectors which makes it possible for them to afford a high service level. As a rule of thumb, with sales of property valued at ¤2,000 per square metre, it starts to make sense to bring in Envac. At that standard of living, consumers can afford and appreciate the environmental gains that can be had from the system.
Envac is proud of its technology and its Swedish heritage. It’s no accident that Envac comes from Sweden, a country which has given birth to a lot of environmental technology these last few decades.
One reason was that the oil crisis in the 70s revealed Sweden to be one of the most dependent countries in the world on fossil fuels and they decided to do something about it, not least because it has a lot of energy-intensive heavy industry. So they built district heating and cooling networks. And Sweden has always been very open to new innovations and the environment has long been on the agenda. Looking after the environment is even taught in the schools. The environment and nature are close to Swedish hearts.
In the deep future, some speculate that vacuum∞based pipe networks could be used to deliver goods into cities, not just to get the rubbish out of them. Postal services after all have existed for a hundred years like this in large office buildings and some hospitals deploy medical products this way. But for now, Envac is setting its sights firmly on the urban waste removal market. And with continuing global urbanisation predicted to give us more new buildings in the next 40 years than in the previous 3,000, who’s to say that they’re wrong?
Further information: www.envacgroup.com