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Feature: Sounds of the underground

Being woken at dawn to the sound of the bin men making their weekly round is, in this country, a common occurrence. As is the sight of homeowners who, having forgotten to put the bins out the night before, stumble down their driveways still in their dressing gowns so not to miss the collection. In many parts of mainland Europe, however, such indignities are becoming a thing of the past as networks of underground waste collection systems become more prevalent.

The main principle of waste collection has remained the same for the best part of 100 years. We leave all our waste, albeit bagged up, on the pavement overnight to await collection the following morning. While more sophisticated bins and bin lorries have been developed, issues surrounding hygiene, working conditions, traffic and pollution have increased and must be addressed by future waste collection as global trends of urbanisation and source segregation continue.

Automated waste collection with underground waste streams is being used in northern and southern Europe to reduce pollution, save space, improve working conditions and take rubbish off the streets. Used in residential areas, inlets in buildings connect to a network of pipes that draw waste to a central system, where it is compacted. These are increasingly being incorporated into building design as an integral part of the overall plans, along with energy, heat, water and cooling systems.


Last year, the 2004 Danish Design Prize was awarded to a waste disposal chute. Swedish company Envac was behind the technology, with a mobile system that comprises a network of waste disposal chutes connected to underground pipes, into which household waste is sucked using vacuum technology to storage tanks that are emptied by vacuum trucks.

With the involvement of Danish architect Erik Brandt Dam, the design meant that hygiene and the working environment improved significantly, and better use was made of space at ground level as there is no need for waste rooms.

In Sweden, a completely new town sector, Nissastrand, is planned in central Halmstad for completion by 2013 with a total of 1,500 flats in eight blocks. The plans also include a quay, promenade and multi-storey car park. The whole area will have Envac's underground waste system.

"Envac's solution is very positive for us as a construction company," says Sonja Bjarudd, project manager for Nissastrand. "Not only can we use larger areas for housing as we don't need to make room for household waste, but we can also make the living environment more pleasant for residents by avoiding refuse collection vans and noise and traffic."

Halmstad's local authority public cleaning company R98 will meet the cost of the investment and be responsible for operation and maintenance. Residents will pay an annual rent in addition to a charge for refuse collection, which Envac says is considerably less than for traditional waste collection.

While new build complexes arguably get the maximum benefit from such systems because integration can be planned from the outset, underground waste collection is also proving its worth in historical cities.

A e15million (£10.3m) project has provided Palma, Mallorca, with a pneumatic waste collection system that covers the needs of 7,400 homes, 1,000 shops and handles an average of 20 tonnes of rubbish a day. The system serves the entire historical quarter of Palma, and involves a completely computerised underground plant connected to 9,100 metres of pipes. The installation has 243 bins in which to deposit refuse,

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