As officials strive to figure out the best way to remove the city's residential trash, there is one place in the city where the garbage seems to disappear as if by magic.
In the apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, residents drop their trash down chutes, and it gets sucked at nearly 60 mph through 20-inch underground pipes that run more than a half-mile up the island. After arriving at the ground floor of a building at the north end of the island, the trash is compacted to about one-twentieth of its original size, sealed in a container and trucked to landfills outside the state."The only other one like it is at Disney World in Florida," said Jerry Sorgente, who works for the city's Department of Sanitation as the senior engineer for the island's trash system. "But we get a lot less clogs because there isn't so much sticky stuff flying through."
Built in 1975, the system, called AVAC for automated vacuum assisted collections system, is Roosevelt Island's pneumatic answer to the pollution and truck traffic of curbside trash pickup. Handling about 10 tons of trash daily, the system is activated every several hours when a computer triggers six turbines in the basement of the AVAC building, creating the vacuum that pulls the accumulated garbage from the island's roughly 20 apartment complexes.
"You wouldn't believe the suction this thing pulls," Sorgente said, staring at one of the nearly 2-inch-thick steel pipes that dump the trash into a 45-cubic-yard compaction container. "Things come flying into this building pretty fast."
That is, until the holiday season arrives. After all the gifts have been opened and the new year has passed, people begin cleaning their closets to make way for their new loot. They toss bulging bags of old sneakers, moth-eaten sweaters and crusty frying pans, Sorgente said. As a result, what had been once-a-month clogs become an every-other-day problem.
"I don't know what possesses people to throw some of this stuff away," Sorgente said, raising his voice above the banging of objects hurling through the pipe above his head. "But holidays and spring cleaning can be real tough around here."
To locate the clogs, Sorgente and the eight engineers and mechanics who are members of his crew use their vacuum gauges to check suction levels at various spots within the pipes. The crew then goes down the system's nearest manhole, opens a small airtight hatch in the pipe and, with a long corkscrew rod, pokes and yanks at the source of the clog.
The system is far less forgiving than curbside pickup and leaves little time for people to react when they mistakenly dispose of valuables. Sorgente, who has been on the job for 14 years, said he had fielded calls from panicked island residents who had dropped everything from wedding rings to specially designed dentures down the garbage chute.
"We invite them to come down and check," said Sorgente, 54. "Once they see what 10 tons of compacted trash in the container really looks like, most of them turn around and go back home."