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Vacuum tube waste collection systems: A compelling choice for city waste management

OCT 31, 2023 | Rohan Bansal| Joydeep Bhattacharyya
region: ALL Government Internet of Things

Transforma Insights recently published a report, ‘Waste Management: 2.9 million devices by 2032 to manage waste effectively and sustainably’, which discusses in detail how implementing waste management systems can help efficiently manage waste collection, reduce associated costs, and promote more sustainable ways to ensure proper collection and disposal of garbage.

This blog discusses how vacuum tube systems are implementing IoT, their benefits, and the associated shortcomings that may hamper their adoption.

Need for waste management

As cities strive for carbon neutrality, recycling waste has gained greater significance. Newer technologies are being implemented to ensure that waste collection is done efficiently while causing minimal emissions. This has led to a significant increase in the waste collection budgets. San Francisco, for instance, is estimated to spend USD300 million annually to collect and manage waste. In addition to cost, the congestion caused by waste collection vehicles and the space required on city streets for waste bins also create burdens for local authorities. Waste management solutions have evolved to address these issues and many cities are gradually adopting them.

Existing IoT waste management solutions

One of the most commonly adopted technology in waste management and collection has been smart waste bins to collect and process waste. These bins notify the concerned authorities when they reach a certain fill level, allowing them to schedule waste pickups by sending collection trucks accordingly. Another advancement has been the introduction of automated vacuum waste collection systems in many cities around the world. In this case, the waste need not be collected by trucks and is directly transported underground through pipes. The additional benefits of vacuum tube systems have led to an increased adoption of these solutions in the past few years.

Components of IoT-enabled vacuum tube systems

Vacuum tube systems operate on three key components. The first is a network of underground pipes and vacuum stations that can efficiently transport waste from individual buildings to the central collection point. The second essential component of an automated vacuum waste collection system is a centralised waste management facility for sorting and processing the waste that is collected from the vacuum stations. The third is a communication and monitoring system to track the fill level of the system in real-time, monitor the functioning of individual components, and alert authorities in case of any issues or malfunctions.

How do vacuum tube waste collection systems work?

These systems collect the waste in their inlet valves and transport it to the collection pipes (either at fixed intervals or upon detection of fill levels) using air generated by fans that create negative air pressure to suck the waste into the pipe system. IoT systems track the fill level of the inlet valves in real-time and accordingly notify the authorities for necessary management actions. The collected waste is sorted and compacted into sealed containers, without any human involvement.

Generally, about two to four different kinds of waste streams are handled in the same transport pipe and each waste stream is directed to its designated container at the collection station. The valves are opened one at a time to allow each stream of waste to flow separately to the collection centre, preventing any mixing of waste. The system’s pneumatic tubes are generally powered by vacuum pumps that are capable of transporting waste at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

In the context of communication technologies, most solutions function on LPWA technologies such as LTE-M and NB-IoT. These technologies offer cost-effective options that leverage existing public networks while also ensuring strong built-in security.

What makes them a compelling choice for the authorities?

The elimination of collection trucks is one of the major benefits of deploying vacuum tube systems as they can eliminate emissions caused by pick-up trucks by up to 90%. The trucks do not need to travel around the city to pick up waste and are just required to send processed waste into landfills from the collection centres. These systems are highly effective in reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfills while simultaneously ensuring that a lower amount of harmful gases such as methane are generated from these sites.

The systems also help authorities save a lot of infrastructure space as they use only 15% of the area required by a traditional waste collection system, thus allowing authorities to use the land more efficiently. In many cases this allows developers to offset the higher cost of implementing vacuum tubes by constructing more properties or improving local amenities using the space saved.

Barriers to the adoption of vacuum tube waste collection systems

The high initial investment costs associated with the deployment of such infrastructure will limit the adoption of these waste collection systems. The same reason will affect their adoption in remote or rural areas as well. Furthermore, the complexity of the systems and their requirement to be carefully planned, designed, installed, and maintained for effective operations have made it challenging for the authorities to incorporate them into existing infrastructures and hence, these are mostly being integrated into completely new urban developments.

What does the future hold for these systems?

Transforma Insights estimates that these systems will become more common as technology advances and more smart cities come up. The huge cost savings, higher efficiency, and reduced emissions associated with the deployment of these systems will make it a compelling choice for most governments. For example, Stockholm has plans to install vacuum waste systems in every new development project that includes at least 1,000 homes in a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) radius. In Singapore, it is now a requirement that any new development project comprising 500 apartments or more must incorporate underground waste pipes. Countries like China and Kenya have also planned to install them in cities like Xixian and Nairobi.

Image source: Ajuntament Barcelona.

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