Laying waste to traditional bins

An innovative new waste system has been installed at Barking Riverside, an over-10,000 home mixed-use project located by the River Thames, London. David Watkinson, Barking Riverside director for design, planning and comms, spoke to Jack Wooler on the Envac system’s benefits.

Could you give us a history of the Envac system’s adoption, including its financing and installation?

“We’ve drawn on learnings from other major European cities, such as Stockholm, integrating this future-proof technology will set the benchmark for the UK and promote sustainability across the country. Barking Riverside’s Envac system will be Europe’s largest and will help mitigate the development’s carbon footprint.

“A development of our scale would require about 8 industrial waste collection vehicles running full time every day. Introducing Envac means that there will be considerably less waste collection vehicles on site, eradicating carbon emissions and safety issues associated with these vehicles. As a result, the masterplan incorporates streetscapes designed to encourage residents to walk and cycle. Practically, it is all about creating a greener, cleaner space for residents. Fewer waste vehicles means less hazards and pollution, making walking and cycling much safer – ultimately leading to higher quality of life.

“Delivering Envac’s waste system at Barking Riverside requires significant planning, particularly because of the large scale required. The pipes underground are half a metre wide so this needed to be factored in during early planning stages and worked around water and sewage. It is worth it because of reduction in pollution, the cleaner environment and the increase in recycling. And it’s fast – rubbish doesn’t hang out like a bad smell the way it used to.”

Can you give us an overview of the system and explain how it works?

“We have replaced traditional bins with devices called waste inlets – these devices are conveniently situated near people’s homes and are connected by an underground pipe network to a waste disposal unit. The 460 inlets on site have replaced the equivalent of 19,000 traditional bins.

“Two waste fractions, residual and mixed recycling, are collected by these inlets. Once the inlets are full, or at pre-programmed emptying times, fans located at the collection station create a negative airflow – sucking waste at speeds of over 40mph through a subterranean pipe network, measuring 15km in length. Technology within the inlets cans sense when they are full and the system is cleared at the press of a button – resulting in no vermin, bin lorry pollution, or overflowing bins.

“Each automated collection cycle for the entire 178 hectare site will take minutes as opposed to multiple waste collection teams and vehicles taking all day to empty on-street bins – a process that typically has a negative environmental impact.”

Why is this a more effective waste solution?

“Envac promotes a little and often approach, a point that is reinforced by a) the ease in which users can deposit waste (simply opening a small door) on the way into and out of the development, given where the inlets are situated, and b) the fact the inlet doors are designed to ideally take bags up to 30 litres in capacity. As a result, the process of carrying and depositing waste isn’t as arduous as it might be with large bin bags, which in itself promotes engagement.

“The system is user friendly in as much as it’s in the open, as opposed to bins that are often hidden in a dark communal store. It’s also clean and smell-free given how the system is sealed. There is no ambiguity with the process – the waste stream for each inlet is clearly labelled and colour coded. These factors break down barriers and make residents more inclined to use a new system.

“A point that has been used by representatives in Sweden, although it is a bit of a stretch, is that the system has a social link to it, a bit like members of a community having a chat at the post box. Because the Envac waste inlets, like post boxes, are in open areas and situated in communal walk ways, there is a degree of social interaction associated with the act of depositing waste, which, again, breaks down barriers to effective recycling.”

What ecological benefits does the system introduce?

“The ecological benefits of the Envac system are sweeping. Integrating the system will reduce waste vehicle-related carbon emissions by at least 90 per cent. By making sustainable waste disposal and recycling accessible, we hope to motivate residents to change habits, ultimately becoming standard practice.

“Barking Riverside is redeveloping a formal industrial site on the banks of the River Thames – we are conscious of the surrounding eco-system and taking care to respect the environment has directed our planning from the beginning.”

How will this affect recycling in the development? Will levels be monitored, and how will the system improve data on this?

“Currently, the UK lags behind the rest of Europe in recycling – we recycle at a rate of 45 per cent compared to Germany’s 75 per cent. The key is changing behaviour and viewing recycling as part of everyday life. Our system makes the process easier – it is colour coded and clearly defined so there is no ambiguity about what goes where.

“Residents have the ability to get rid of their rubbish and recycling straight away on a daily basis. In addition to detecting when inlets are full, the technology has the capability to give residents regular updates on how much is being recycled. Having access to that kind of information allows residents to see and understand the result of their actions, encouraging regular practice.”

What community benefits does the system bring?

“Introducing the Envac system reinforces our sustainability-led ethos. By making waste collection one of the key environmental stands of Barking Riverside, we are ensuring that the actual waste collection will operate in a sustainable, effective manner as well as taking carbon emissions and traffic safety issues associated with a constant flow of waste collection vehicles completely out of the equation.

“Sustainability and environmental impact are a key community focus of Barking Riverside. Making knowledge and education accessible is essential to making sustainable choices standard practice in everyday life. Within the … building we have a viewing window so that local schools can see how the system works and learn about local sustainability practices.

“The ecology centre will open in 2020, providing the community the opportunity to learn more about their local area and the best practices to preserve the health of the eco-system.”

Do you think this is likely to be adopted more widely around the UK in the future?

“Barking Riverside is leading the way by introducing and prioritising an integrated system, but there is still a lot of work to be done – the UK definitely lags behind on waste management when compared with Scandinavia. We hope that this approach to tackling waste collection becomes a benchmark for other developments across Europe, and that our leading by example will act as a frame of reference for developers and the technology will become standard in future developments.

“Barking Riverside’s sustainability-led ethos and commitment to making a clean, green, and pleasant area in which to live led us to this ground-breaking method of waste collection. It’s surprising the number of people who ask sales staff about communal bin stores – the reputation for being untidy is persistent – and Envac has been a major selling point for new homes. Integrating this future-proof technology offers a much more pleasant solution for our residents while simultaneously promoting sustainability and liveability.”

What do you think are the most important aspects of tackling climate change for housebuilders and developers?     

“Promoting ecology is crucial when it comes to looking at the long-term impact of climate change. Due to our proximity to the river, we have a particularly unique ecosystem here, and helping on site flora and fauna to thrive is a priority.

“Birdlife is a good example. In 2010/11, our ecology team recorded 24 species of bird on site. By 2018, we saw the number of species double to nearly 50 species, notably including the Black Tailed Godwit and Cetti’s Warbler – remarkable for one of London’s largest live construction sites.

“However, efforts to support any site’s ecology can only have a meaningful long-term impact when projects are delivered in partnership with the community. We want to make sure that current and future residents feel a connection to the diverse nature on site, long after we have delivered all 10800 homes. An on-site ecology centre will be operational from the end of this year – a community-driven space where people can learn and share their ideas. Other current projects include inviting local people to co-design a riverside bird hide, allowing local people and visitors to observe birdlife on the river for years to come.

“A major part of our approach has been to build resilience into our water management systems.  We are raising and improving the flood defences along 2km of the River Thames to address worst case climate change scenarios.  We have also moved over a 1,000,000m³ of soil to reprofile the site and raise the development platform above the flood level from both the Thames and local tributaries, making Barking Riverside one of London’s most protected areas in the event of flooding from the River Thames.  Our holistic Sustainable Drainage Strategy incorporates living roofs, permeable paving, rain gardens and landscaped ponds throughout the development. This not only serves to manage water but creates an attractive environment for residents and wildlife. These areas also create sheltered micro-climates and assist with reducing urban heat island effects across the scheme.”