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Turning waste on its head

How underground waste collection and storage pioneer Villiger Entsorgungssysteme is cleaning up our cities and saving councils money

By Aine Doris 17 September 2018

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As our cities and urban spaces grow in population, we are producing more and more waste. Most of it – much of it toxic – accumulates in town and city centres, in and around streets, housing and historical buildings and spaces. The problem is aggravated by “throw-away consumerism”— products and goods produced for one-time use in order to maximise profits.

At the same time, our consumer-oriented society also expects higher standards of living. We want more aesthetically-pleasing surroundings and a cleaner environment. The World Bank estimates that every person on the planet produces 1.2kg of municipal solid waste every day. And as our global population increases, that figure is expected to grow to 1.5kg by 2025.

Local authorities around the world face a major challenge in tackling this issue. However, one enterprising Swiss company has found an innovative solution that could revolutionise the way we deal with the problem. “Back in the 1980s, my father [Paul, founder and CEO of Villiger] had an idea,” says Michèle Villiger.

“He took a hard look at the way we collected refuse in Europe and around the world and he saw the flaws – a lack of volume management, decentralised collection systems and spiralling logistics costs. So he sat down to see if he could figure out a new way of approaching the problem – looking at it completely differently, was there a way we could fix the flaws while servicing the community’s demand for an improved living environment. And he started to experiment.”

What began as prototype built in the garage of the Villiger family home in 1991 became Villiger Entsorgungssysteme AG, a business that is today pioneering new systems of sustainable and efficient waste disposal in Switzerland and across Europe.

Going underground

Michèle Villiger sits on the company’s board. What differentiates her organisation’s approach, she says, is a capacity to examine an issue from different perspectives: to turn a problem (quite literally) on its head in order to solve it. 

“My father saw the potential of turning the challenge of waste collection upside down – he imagined taking it literally underground. In 1991, he pioneered a solution that today we call Sub-Vil – a system that stores trash containers below ground level.”

The idea was simple but smart: “If you have an underground waste disposal system, you not only overcome the volume issue by increasing capacity, you also keep rubbish and refuse hidden from sight and you get rid of the problems of smell and contamination. You have a cleaner city for everyone,” Villiger says.

The underground systems have proved themselves a thousand times, she adds. And they can be used to service the needs of any kind of urban scenario – from industrial to household – collecting organic, recyclable and non-recyclable waste via a centralised management system.

“We’ve taken the ubiquitous idea of the trolley bin that sits outside of houses, housing blocks or businesses and turned it into a centralised collection point, where both households and industrial users can take their trash. They drop it there into waste underground containers that have a capacity of 3-to-20 m3 and that can sift different types of waste, from residual and organic waste to glass, cans, paper and plastic bottles – even Nespresso capsules and batteries.”

Not only does the underground system deal with the capacity, aesthetic and health issues, there is a pay-off for local authorities in terms of cost, says Villiger. “Authorities can save money because the waste is all at one central point – they don’t have to send out trucks door to door any more. Furthermore, users can dispose their waste around the clock. And it’s a versatile solution. It can be used in almost every environmental situation.”

Over the last three decades, the company has gone from strength to strength, introducing a raft of innovative, hi-tech waste collection and disposal systems and solutions. 

Waste disposal: a fresh approach

From the Swing-o-Mat emptying platform that uses hydraulics to tilt containers to 90 degrees, to stylish above-ground recycling points, underground compactors up to 20 m3 and fully automatic collection cranes, Villiger Entsorgungssysteme has been surfing a tide of innovation. The company now provides Sub-Vil underground bins, above ground bins, Quadromat lift systems and fully automatic collection cranes called Speed Lifters. These efficient, cost-effective solutions respect the environment while meeting consumer needs for cleaner, more attractive urban spaces. 

Villiger Entsorgungssysteme has also grown in recent years, now employing 70 full-time staff and residing in a modern factory building that houses its own engineering department. The plant has given the business the option to manage every stage of the manufacturing process.

Michèle Villiger puts her company’s success down to a commitment to quality and flexibility. “We don’t cut corners. Villiger has built a reputation for delivering products and solutions that will last a lifetime. And we’ve also had the foresight to build a kind of flexibility into our business model. As our customer base has grown, we’ve seen and capitalised on the demand for customised solutions to meet real customer needs. These things don’t really change. They are core values that underpin our culture as a family business.”

The future for Villiger, she says, is exciting. “I think we have the potential for significant global expansion. We’re already exploring China, and the demand is growing in our Eastern Europe customer base. Our solutions have the innovation, the quality and the engineering to compete globally.

“And let’s face it, we address a need that is not getting smaller and that is not going away any time soon.”

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