Refuse disposal in the Barbican Estate

The Barbican Committee studied the problem of disposal. They set out three particular aspirations. (1) They wanted to provide a high standard of accommodation. (2) They wanted rubbish to be disposed of without inconveniencing the tenants and without refuse having to be carried in public spaces. (3) They wanted to reduce the workload of porters to the minimum. Very optimistic ambitions. Unfortunately their ambitions like the garbage had to come down to earth.

As a result of their detailed investigations, they came up with four possible solutions for consideration.


The first solution considered was for each flat to have a dustbin. They concluded that “the labour involved in emptying dustbins for each dwelling would be excessive“. (Remember this was in the days of huge metal dustbins .) They also reported that it would be “necessary to provide space for the bins and separate lifts to carry the bins to the ground floor“.

In essence, however, this is the method for removing refuse that we have now got. There are refuse bags instead of metal dustbins, and there are no separate lifts. But every day, porters do have to come round to each flat and collect the rubbish. So the aim of reducing the labour of porters to the minimum was not achieved.

Sinkhole pulverisers

The second alternative was ‘sinkhole pulverisers’. Sinkhole pulverisers were grinders driven by an electric motor which would be connected to the sink waste and could be used for disposing of animal and vegetable kitchen waste. But that would have meant food waste ending up in the drains. As the Barbican Committee reported: “Sinkhole pulverisers are expensive, unreliable, and generally not welcomed by drainage authorities“.

Refuse chutes.

This solution would have involved each flat having a refuse chute which would discharge at basement level into large wheeled containers in special cubicles, which could be pulled out when full, and exchanged with a new empty one. Essentially, this would mean dropping stuff down chutes much like the laundry chutes so beloved in comedy films set in hotels, or the one in the Death Star in Star Wars.

One problem with this was obviously hygiene. The chutes would be open-ended and ‘stuff’ would inevitably stick to the chute walls and smell. So the solution proposed was that all chutes should be placed out on the balconies. Summer evenings were going to be lovely!

This solution to the rubbish problem would also have created major problems for the construction of the estate because it was estimated that there would have to be about one hundred chutes into which all other chutes would converge at basement level, with all those wheeled containers having to be watched and wheeled in and out. So this solution was understandably dropped.

The Garchey system

The solution, they eventually went for was “the Garchey system of domestic refuse disposal“.

The Barbican Committee reported that the Garchey system had originated in France before the Second World War and had been installed in new developments of 996 flats in Sheffield and 448 flats in Leeds. They reported that “the Garchey system is the most complete system of refuse disposal.”

It was, in a way, a compromise between sinkhole pulverisers and refuse chutes. The system is connected to sink units and waste pipes so that, instead of everything being ground up, it was simply passed straight through the system. Even bottles and cans and other objects could be put in it, which was not the case with sinkhole pulverisers. The sink outlets would be connected into 8 inch diameter cast iron pipes which would run vertically down the building and discharge into collection chambers, in which surplus water would drain away straight into the main drainage system, leaving the soggy remains to be disposed of.

Ideally, what was meant to happen next was that there would be a central plant room on the estate which would contain receiver tanks and vacuum pumps. The vacuum pumps would ‘exhaust’ the refuse from the collection chambers and discharge it into the receiver tanks. The Barbican Committee reported that this would be carried out once a week. The refuse in the receiver tanks would then be dried in a hydro-extractor and burnt in an incinerator. The ash would then be removed by normal refuse disposal trucks. They calculated that the final ash to be removed after incineration would weigh about 1/5 of the dry refuse weight and 1/8 of the damp refuse weight.

The advantage of the Garchey system over the refuse chute system was that the Garchey system could be in a self-contained system not open-ended and not needing lots of refuse shoots and wheeled containers to be manhandled.

One problem with this scheme was that the City was a smokeless zone and so it was going to be a problem to incinerate the waste. One solution they considered was to put the central disposal plant under one of the tower blocks and then have a flue taking the smoke up to the very highest level so that there would be no likelihood of unpleasant fumes. But the City Corporation was keen to avoid any smoke being produced and so they considered other final disposal methods. One method was for the wet refuse to be taken away by tanker lorries to other treatment sites. All the refuse could be pumped there in new pipelines.

The final solution they considered – and this is the solution they adopted – was for the wet refuse to be passed through the hydro extractor to remove most of the water, and then the damp refuse which remained could be loaded into closed vehicles and transported to a refuse disposal depot elsewhere.

They ended their report with what seemed like a mere afterthought – that the disposal of any large dry refuse could be in a room provided at basement and ground floor level in each block. Newspapers were anticipated to be particular problem. The Barbican Committee reported: “many people are reluctant to tear up newspapers for disposal by the Garchey system and this room could be used to store the papers until they are removed under normal refuge arrangements”. I don’t know what’s most bizarre: the idea of people standing over their sink dutifully tearing up the daily newspaper, or the idea of a room on the ground floor of any of the buildings being given over to storing newspapers and fridges.

We haven’t ended up with quite that, but we do have a system of taking large dry refuse to specified collection points around the estate, which has the added recycling benefit that anyone from inside or outside the estate who wants anything which has been left there can take it.