Wembley kick off: Envac’s vacuum waste

Out of sight, out of mind - Stuart Spear visits the Wembley City development to see how Envac's underground vacuum waste removal has revolutionised waste collections.

Thanks to the luxuries of central heating, running water, sanitation and electricity it is difficult to imagine just how uncomfortable life was for city dwellers in the early 19th century.

Yet one key utility has changed little since then. The way we collect domestic waste is almost unchanged to when 200 years ago dustmen emptied the contents of household dust pits into high walled carts which were then taken to a network of dust yards across city suburbs.

That is why a revolutionary vacuum system for removing waste from London’s Wembley City development has been causing such a stir. Gone are the weekly waste collections, unsightly space-consuming bins and early morning dust carts clogging the city’s arteries.

At Wembley, waste is treated like every other utility and built into the infrastructure of the buildings as recyclables, non-recyclables and organic waste are sucked into an underground network of pipes to a central refuse depot. Unfortunately, what in the UK is seen as a radical shift in waste management has in other parts of Europe been in existence since the Sixties.

Today whole districts of Stockholm, Barcelona and Paris use vacuum waste removal to provide sky-high recycling rates, waste to energy district heating systems and organic waste conversion to fertiliser. Even self emptying street bins are part of the underground waste network liberating local councils from prohibitive collection costs.

Envac, the Swedish-based company introducing vacuum waste removal to the UK, is currently negotiating with a number of developers across the country to install vacuum waste removal. In southeast London the 30-acre Surrey Canal sporting village development is looking to use the system to feed the Lewisham waste to energy plant with vacuum-collected waste.

The Wembley City development is at present the UK’s only vacuum waste site in operation. When at full capacity it will be capable of handling waste from 10,000 residents.

Launched in December 2008 the site is at present made up of two housing estates, student accommodation for the City of Westminster College and a four-star Hilton Hotel due to open this summer.

The Brent Civic town hall complex due to open in 2013 along with a designer shopping village and cinema are also to be plugged into the waste network.

“It is like a massive jigsaw,” explains Richard Botting who heads up Envac’s UK operation. “To service this kind of development with refuse trucks you would need three trucks working all day five days a week.”

Each refuse depot can suck waste from buildings within a 2km radius travelling at a speed of 70km an hour through underground carbon steel piping. At Wembley the unmanned waste depot houses fans to suck the waste through the pipes, a cyclone to remove the air from the waste, a compactor and three 30m containers to handle each of the waste streams removed fortnightly by Brent Council.

Being a sealed system the depot is clinically clean and odour free with air passing through filters before being vented. The system can handle as many waste streams as the local authority chooses to recycle, providing additional savings.

“Recycling is just built into the system which means we are saving on disposal costs with it generating a 40 odd per cent diversion rate as well as not having to send the vehicles down there that we may otherwise have to,” explains Brent Council’s head of recycling and waste, Chris Whyte.

“Having a big housing development right in the middle of Wembley would have proven very difficult to service using conventional waste collection methods. It’s a very streamline and efficient process and takes a lot of the running around out of it as the waste collectors.”

At the other end of the pipe residents are encouraged to recycle little and often so avoiding the need for large recycling bins in high density flats. Tenants bring their waste to court yards where it is placed in marked shoots to be emptied automatically three times a day or when full. Whyte’s only criticism is that organic waste is tending to end up in general waste and so in landfill.

While the advantages to the council are obvious, for the developer it means space previously used for bins can now be more profitably exploited while porters employed to remove waste from sites are no longer needed. The tenant is then charged for waste handling allowing the developer to recoup costs. At an installation cost of £6m the Wembley City developer, Quintain, estimates it will take 13 years to recoup its outlay.

The speed at which UK developers recoup costs compared with European developments may explain why vacuum waste removal has been slow to catch on here.

While the local authority saves on collection costs the way council tax is paid makes it difficult for that saving to be passed back to the developer.

Botting explains: “We all pay our council tax charge and yet there is no mechanism for that to be reduced; in other countries installing an alternative waste collection system means a reduction in local tax.”

A way around, he adds, is for a borough to tender out waste collection for a specific area to the providers of a vacuum waste system. Because vacuum waste can be retro-fitted into existing buildings it could potentially be installed into any high density living area.

The only question is whether it is going to take another 200 years for the dust cart to finally be relegated to the status of museum curiosity.

Stuart Spear is a freelance journalist

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