Suck my waste, Toronto

Suck my waste, Toronto

Trash collection is one of those basic city services that seems impervious to new technology: you put your trash out at the curb and a truck hauls it away. But what if, like water, sewage and gas, you could collect it all underground? Vacuum-waste collection—which gets a brief mention in the toilet-bowl cover story of Toronto Life’s January issue—is being touted as the future of waste management, and it is part of WaterfronToronto’s vision for its new residential communities in the West Don Lands and East Bayfront areas. Unfortunately, that vision clashes with city hall’s own idea of a bold, trashy future.

The biggest name in vacuum waste collection is EnVac, a Scandinavian firm that does business around the world. The system involves adding three pipelines to the underground network—one for waste, one for organics and one for recycled materials, all of which shuttle waste to a nearby transfer station. The collection system can be connected directly to multi-residential units, while for single-family areas you might locate the intakes at the end of the street.

Its benefits are obvious: no trash on the curb, no fossil-fuel-burning trucks, no raccoon problems, no injuries to city waste collectors. It’s not particularly feasible for areas of the city that are already built-up, but it’s ideal for new large-scale developments, which is one of the reasons why WaterfronToronto—which will be building vast residential communities from scratch—is pretty much sold on the idea. “We would like to see vacuum waste on the waterfront as part of the green development agenda,” says Marisa Piattelli, the organization’s spokesperson. “It is a component of leading-edge sustainable development.” Piattelli also says vacuum waste will be a “differentiator” for the city: a model of urban living that will set Toronto above the rest, and compel other cities to come here to see how it’s done.

The city, however, has its reservations. Geoff Rathbone, Toronto’s Director of Solid Waste Management, is open to the idea but sees a number of potential logistical problems. For one, there’s the matter of oversize items—that smelly old mattress won’t fit into a vacuum tube. For another, there’s cost. The current system of truck haulage costs about $20 per unit per year for residential high-rises, and $80 per year for detached or semi-detached homes. It’s not entirely clear yet whether vacuum waste is cost-competitive. Rathbone’s staff is currently working with city planning and WaterfronToronto on a report that will be made public in late January.

But the bigger issue is a philosophical one. Earlier this year, city council approved a plan to take trash collection off the property-tax rolls and bill separately for the service. It’s all part of the strategy to increase diversion rates: by charging residents for trash but not for organics or recycling, it will encourage people to recycle more. This user-pay arrangement also involves distributing new bins embedded with computer chips, so that the city can keep track of how much waste each home generates. It’s an ambitious plan, one that the city is heavily invested in—it goes into effect in the latter half of 2008.

Rathbone notes that vacuum waste can accommodate the user-pay principle: the system can be equipped with magnetic-strip readers, so that residents must swipe their “trash card” every time they drop their waste down the intake. Admittedly, between the lack of curbside pickup and the swipe cards, vacuum waste starts to look like a hassle. But what it really does is compel people to become more intimate with their own waste, which is the best way to get them to reduce and divert.

Anyone who believes that Toronto should be the greenest city in North America, but who thinks it can achieve that title without radical changes in civic routines, is dreaming. “