Tubes vs. trucks: A comparative analysis of the impacts of alternative waste-collection methods with specific reference to Roosevelt Island in New York City

By Juliette Spertus, Benjamin Miller, Camille Kamga, Lisa Douglass, Brian Ross

This paper compares the economic and environmental impacts of truck collection of household waste with those of the pneumatic tube system employed by one New York City neighborhood, Roosevelt Island (RI), since 1975. Although all homes are connected to the pneumatic system, businesses and institutions are not, meaning that trucks still collect three-quarters of the Island’s waste. In order to assess the potential benefits of employing pneumatic tube systems in other New York neighborhoods, the paper discusses the findings of a 2013 feasibility study which analyzed potential upgrades and extensions to the network. The study confirmed the context-specific nature of collection impacts and found that on Roosevelt Island trucks are more energy-efficient than the pneumatic system. However, the pneumatic scenarios tested would reduce truck miles by up to 70%, and could lead to a system based on 90% electricity While direct operating costs are slightly lower for the tube-based scenarios, when debt service on the initial capital expenditures is included, pneumatic systems are 40 to 90% more expensive. The study did not calculate the local impacts of increased heavy-truck traffic, but it suggests that the relative cost of pneumatic collection may be offset by the public benefit of reductions in these local impacts as well as improved collection of recyclable materials.

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