Summer brings heat, humidity and — in a city like New York — nasty odors. The warmer months can intensify the smell of garbage on the streets. That is, unless you live on a narrow island that sits in the East River between Queens and Manhattan.
Roosevelt Island is home to a trash disposal system that eliminates stinky piles of trash. On the surface, nothing appears unusual about how its residents dispose of their garbage. But look beneath the surface (literally) and it's a different story.
The 2-mile-long island consists of several dozen apartment buildings with roughly 14,000 residents who take out the trash like many other New Yorkers who live in multistory dwellings.
"You have a chute in the garbage room on your floor," says resident Julian Stein. "You put the garbage in it, and that's the last you see of it."
But that garbage isn't collected and hauled away by maintenance workers. Instead, it's whisked away at 65 miles per hour through underground tubes.
The trash-sucking system on the island might sound a little futuristic to some, but it's actually more than 40 years old. The system was installed in 1975. Keeping garbage trucks off the island's narrow streets was part of an effort to create a Utopian environment for residents.
The only other pneumatic garbage system in the United States at the time was at Disney World. (Today, Envac — the Swedish company that installed the system — has about 800 of these systems worldwide, mostly in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.)
So for longtime resident Milt Marcus, that makes Roosevelt Island "a magical place."
If there were a Merlin in this magical place, it would be Al DiGregorio. He's a chief engineer with the New York City Sanitation Department and he's the guy in charge of running the Automated Vacuum Assisted Compacting system.
It essentially operates "like a giant vacuum cleaner," he says.
Residents throw their trash down the aforementioned chutes. It piles up for several hours until it's sucked away, with the flip of a switch. And just like that, the garbage rockets from the basements of residential buildings across the island to a centralized collection facility through underground pipes.
DiGregorio says the vacuum is created by three centrifugal turbines with powerful motors.
The garbage is then spun around like a tornado and dropped into huge containers, which are then hauled off the island for disposal.
"You know, no diesel emissions, trucks coming in. It's out of sight. It's out of mind. It gets done. It works," he says.
Except when it doesn't.
The underground pipes are roughly 24 inches in diameter. And sometimes, not often, people foul up the works by tossing things down the chute that don't belong: "car bumpers, strollers, flower pots with the flowers and like trees in them," DiGregorio explains.
He says clogs like that are snaked like a drain.
The AVAC system sucks up roughly 6 tons of trash a day that never sees the curb.
For New Yorkers who don't live on the island, it's all enough to make them green with garbage disposal envy.
"I'm living in Queens and every Tuesday and Friday [the] garbage truck [comes], and that's not nice because it's smelly and sometimes [it comes at] 3 [in the] morning," says Elena Galadova.
That's something only a move to Roosevelt Island can fix.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.