The Island with No Garbage

New York City has five boroughs with Manhattan — home of the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, Central Park, Times Square/Broadway, and a lot more — the most prominent of the quintet. If you walk around the island of Manhattan enough, you’ll certainly come across a site like the one above — garbage bags piled up on the curb. With more than two million people living on the island and nearly another two million entering each weekday to work and play, there’s a lot of trash to be collected. Building management, superintendents, and janitorial crews put the garbage out on the sidewalk so that sanitation workers can drive by, tossing the refuse into the back of their huge garbage trucks.

That’s not surprising, though. How else could Manhattan deal with garbage?

Well, it turns out that some of Manhattan has a different solution. Roosevelt Island sits in the East River, with the island of Manhattan to its west and Queens/Long Island to its east. This two-mile-long, 800-foot wide (at its widest) strip of land is home to a bit more than 10,000 New Yorkers. Like its neighbor to the west, Roosevelt Island is part of the borough of Manhattan. Unlike the much more famous part of the borough, though, Roosevelt Island has almost no garbage trucks.

To understand why, we have to start with Disney World.

When Disney came up with its plan for his magical city in Orlando, Florida, they had a grand desire to make it something beyond what anyone had seen. Having garbage on the roadside as Mickey and friends paraded down Main Street, U.S.A would be the opposite of that, so the Disney team sought other solutions. What they found was a Swedish company’s innovation, called the Automated Vacuum Collection system, or AVAC for short. AVAC was a series of interconnected, underground pneumatic tubes, in essence. Trash chutes were already common throughout the United States, particularly in larger buildings; AVAC used the same basic idea. But instead of that trash collecting in a dumpster or trash compactor, the garbage would flow into the AVAC. Using high-powered vacuums, the garbage would fly off to a centralized location away from the theme park’s hub — and away from the guests. No trash bags on the street and no garbage trucks blocking traffic. Just a lot of invisible infrastructure.

Sounds great, right? The Swedish innovators thought so, and the company wasn’t intent on letting Disney keep this technology to itself. They believed that it was so transformative — a city without garbage trucks! — it’d sweep through the nation. But as we know, they were wrong. Mostly.

There’s one place in the U.S. outside of Disney World where you’ll find an AVAC system, and that’s Roosevelt Island. For most of its history, the island was mostly used to house hospitals and an asylum (literally called “the New York City Lunatic Asylum” until the 1930s), and few people outside of those institutions lived there full-time. But an effort to increase affordable housing in the city in the 1970s changed Roosevelt Island’s character — state and federal grants funded the creation of apartment buildings there, as well as an above-water tramway connecting it to Manhattan Island. And when they built all those buildings, they did so in a way to minimize the need for cars. (Apparently, car-free pseudo-urban planning was a thing in the Seventies.) That included garbage trucks, so installing the AVAC system made a ton of sense. So if you live on Roosevelt Island, you don’t see a lot of trash or trash collectors. Instead, as the New York Times so nicely put it, there’s “a 1,000-horsepower vacuum [ . . . ] silently sucking garbage from their buildings at 60 miles per hour.”

As Roosevelt Island has grown, so has the AVAC system — mostly. A few years ago, Cornell University opened a new campus on the island; it’s outside the reach of the AVAC. But for everyone else, there’s a magical garbage machine keeping things clean.

Want a virtual tour of the AVAC? New York’s NPR affiliate, WNYC, put together this video of the system back in 2011.


Bonus fact: Like Roosevelt Island and Disney World, Taiwan doesn’t want garbage piling up on the streets. But unlike the first two, Taiwan doesn’t have an AVAC system — they use garbage trucks. Their trick? They copied ice cream trucks. Residents aren’t supposed to leave their trash on the curb for pickup; instead, the trash collectors come at a certain, pre-scheduled time, and you bring your garbage right to the truck. To make sure you know the truck is coming, as Huffington Post notes, “garbage trucks, like ice cream vans, are equipped with speakers that play music” designed to alert residents that their pick-up time has come.

From the Archives: The Nose Knows: Forget garbage. This is how Disney uses your sense of smell to turn you into a better customer.