Sunday, June 7, 2015

hammarby tubes

I am in luck when we arrive at the GlashusEtt in the Hammarby Sjöstad area of Stockholm, for a group of Italian civil environmental engineering students are being toured around the district and I can join in. The GlashusEtt is funded by the Stockholm water board, testament to the redevelopment of the once industrial area. Saying goodbye to David from Envac, who has been guiding me around Stockholm’s vacuum waste systems, I join the chatting students in a seminar room where we hear about the innovations in sustainable design that characterises this neighbourhood.

The second talk is by Klas, also from Envac. I learn more about their vacuum waste disposal system, first installed in hospitals as a way to remove medical waste and now in over 600 sites in 30 cities around the world. “We use air to do the hard work” a slide reads, “instead of a human being” Klas adds. He tells the engineering students how the vacuum system means that piles of garbage have disappeared, that the streets are quieter without nighttime trash collections from beeping trucks, that there is less physical contact with waste and how neighbourhoods are safer for children to play in.

The audience is fascinated. They have lots of questions and want to know who is responsible for the system, who owns it, how long it lasts, what is the smallest system??? I am curious about how people are trained to sort their garbage correctly. The GlashusEtt presenter tells me that they have school groups visiting from the age of 10, their waste disposal habits crafted from an early age.

Question time is over and we head out into the neighbourhood to see the vacuum waste system first hand. After weaving between bike sheds and raised garden boxes we stop at three submarine-like tubes emerging from the ground, by an apartment block. Klas points out the three different tubes – one for paper, one for organic waste and one for combustible or non-recyclable household rubbish. The organic waste tube has a lock on it so that passersby cannot use it and throw undesirables inside. The apartment residents have the key. The paper tube is also tailored, with a smaller mailbox-like slot inside. This is to encourage users to insert their papers one by one, rather than in a bag, which is easier for compression and recycling. The third tube has no constrictions, other than the size of the round hole into which people can put their garbage.

The students, used to a more chaotic trash collection system in Italy, are curious as to how the residents obey these rules. Klas tells them that they can monitor exactly what is being put where and if one tube becomes a problem, they lock it up. But mostly the residents are well trained he says. Again, I wonder how this system works in other settings, with different kinds of environmental citizens. I wonder how users practices are shaped by the system, and how they tinker with it too.

I also wonder about the kinds of social practices which get rearranged by pneumatic tube systems. One of my last sights of Stockholm, as I am heading to the train station is of a scavenger, arm deep in a trash can, looking for the treasure of a half-smoked cigarette or uneaten sandwich. Not only do pneumatic tube systems impact on garbage routes and nighttime pickups but also the gleaning which occurs not only in India but also many European cities.

Our Hammarby Sjöstad tour ends in another processing site, filled with green and blue tubes. More motors here powering the vacuum sucking the residents’ garbage into three different bins. Like the cobblestone hatch at the waterside, the entrance to this facility is unassuming, revealing little of the vacuum technological wonders inside.

All images © Anna Harris.

My thanks to David Jost and Klas Torstensson for the guided tours of the Envac vacuum waste disposal systems, and to Jonas Törnblom and Malin Lennen for arranging this.

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