Magazine article The New Yorker

WHOOSH DEPT. OF SANITATION Series: 4/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

WHOOSH DEPT. OF SANITATION Series: 4/5

Article excerpt

The Avac is New York's only pneumatic garbage-collection system. Designed in the late nineteen-sixties to service Roosevelt Island's housing developments, the system runs under all the island's high-rises. When people throw their garbage down the trash chutes, it piles up for several hours, until a trapdoor opens, sucking the waste into a big underground pipe. Then a complex system of air valves propels the garbage through the pipe at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour. When the trash resurfaces at the Avac center, a squat building at the northern tip of the island, it is dumped into two silo-shaped cyclones, where it is spun like cotton candy and then whooshed down chutes into huge containers.

Ron Marli is one of the people who control the Avac's suction valves; on a normal day, he "pulls" between five and seven tons of garbage. Last year, though, construction began on two thousand new housing units on the southern end of Roosevelt Island, and now the whole Avac system has to be expanded. This is not a simple undertaking: the machine is Swedish, and it is maintained by a Swedish company called Envac, which has been called "the world's largest pneumatic garbage systems maintenance company." The nearest Envac repairman, Frederik Olsson, is stationed in Toronto.

Olsson has been spending a lot of time on Roosevelt Island lately, hanging around the Avac center while the expansion is in progress. "It is a strange way to visit America, but oh, well," he said the other day, when he dropped by the center with Soren Hallberg, an En-vac technician from Stockholm. As they lounged with Ron Marli in the Avac center office, the building rumbled with the vaguely digestive thrum of after-lunch waste moving through the pipes.

According to Marli, a small man with a gravelly voice and a pale-yellow beard, the system was conceived at the time when the island, which had been the site of an insane asylum, was being rebuilt as an experiment in social housing. …

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