On the Implausibility of the Death Star's Trash Compactor

Here's one from the vault. But not our vault. It's an all-time favorite of mine, from McSweeney's a few years ago, written by Joshua Tyree: "On the Implausibility of the Death Star's Trash Compactor." Lets file it under physics. For example:

2. Why do both walls of the trash compactor move towards each other, rather than employing a one-movable-wall system that would thus rely on the anchored stability, to say nothing of the strength, of the other, non-moving wall, to crush trash more effectively?

It's available here, in the original. But I deem it worthy of a full reprint below the fold, especially since it's 2+ years old. Although I find that the case is rock solid, perhaps others have quibbles to quabble. And I don't care if that's not a word. It might as well be.


On the Implausibility of the Death Star's Trash Compactor

By Joshua Tyree

I maintain that the trash compactor onboard the Death Star in "Star Wars" is implausible, unworkable, and moreover, inefficient.

The Trash Compactor Debate turns on whether the Death Star ejects its trash into space. I, for one, believe it does. Though we never see the Death Star ejecting its trash, we do see another Empire ship, the so-called Star Destroyer, ejecting its trash into space. I therefore see no reason to suspect that Empire protocol dictating that trash be ejected into space would not apply equally to all Empire spacecraft, including the Death Star.

The Death Star clearly has a garbage-disposal problem. Given its size and massive personnel, the amount of waste it generates -- discarded food, broken equipment, excrement, and the like -- boggles the imagination. That said, I just cannot fathom how an organization as ruthless and efficiently-run as the Empire would have signed off on such a dangerous, unsanitary, and shoddy garbage-disposal system as the one depicted in the movie.

Here are the problems, as I can ascertain them, with the Death Star's garbage-disposal system:

1. Ignoring the question of how Princess Leia could possibly know where the trash compactor is, or that the vent she blasts open leads to a good hiding place for the rescue crew, why are there vents leading down there at all? Would not vents leading into any garbage-disposal system allow the fetid smell of rotting garbage, spores, molds, etc., to seep up into the rest of the Death Star? Would not it have been more prudent for the designers of the Death Star to opt for a closed system, like a septic tank?

2. Why do both walls of the trash compactor move towards each other, rather than employing a one-movable-wall system that would thus rely on the anchored stability, to say nothing of the strength, of the other, non-moving wall, to crush trash more effectively?

3. Why does the trash compactor compact trash so slowly, and with such difficulty, once the resistance of a thin metal rod is introduced? Surely metal Death Star pieces are one of the main items of trash in need of compacting. It thus stands to reason that the trash compactor should have been better designed to handle the problem of a skinny piece of metal. (And while I hate to be the sort of person who says I told you so, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that a one-movable-wall system would have improved performance.)

4. Why does the trash compactor only compact trash sideways? Once ejected into space, wouldn't the flattened, living-room-sized, and extremely solid panes of trash that result from such a primitive, unidirectional trash compactor pose serious hazards for Empire starships in the vicinity?

5. And what of the creature that lives in the trash compactor? Presumably, the creature survives because the moving walls do not extend all the way to the floor of the room, where the liquid is. After all, if the walls reached the floor, the creature would be killed each time trash is compacted. The design employed on the Death Star must allow the organic trash to filter down to the bottom, where the parasitic worm-creature devours it. But what happens when heavier pieces of non-organic trash fall down there? Would such trash not get wedged under the doors, causing them to malfunction? Do stormtroopers have to confront the creature each time they retrieve pieces of un-compacted trash?

6. Why not have separate systems for organic and inorganic waste, thus allowing full compaction of the inorganics and a closed sanitary system for the organics?

7. Why does the Empire care, anyway, about reducing its organic garbage output? Are we to believe that the architects of the Death Star, a group of individuals bent on controlling the entire known universe, are also concerned about environmental issues? Would organic garbage rot in space? So what? Furthermore, why has the Empire gone to the trouble of acquiring a frightening parasitic worm-creature and having it eat all organic trash, especially given the aforementioned flaws in the design of the compactor and overall maintenance hassles?

8. Personally, were it up to me, I would have designed special garbage ships instead of employing a crude, cumbersome, and inefficient (to say nothing of unsanitary) compactor-worm combo to deal with the trash.

9. If the Empire insists on ejecting trash into space, why do they bother compacting it? Space is infinite, is it not? In such an environment, it hardly matters what size the trash is. In fact, a persuasive argument can be made that it's actually better for the trash to take up more space, so that it appears on radar systems as something for Empire ships to avoid. Compacted trash creates smaller chunks of harder trash that would undoubtedly cause serious damage to Empire starships. And needless to say, damage to starships would, in turn, create yet more hassles and headaches for the Empire.

Please understand, gentle reader, I am all for creating hassles and headaches for the Empire. I just doubt that the Empire would have created so many for itself. Q.E.D.


And while you're here, don't miss our Year 2 Agenda or The World's Fair archives.

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Why a compactor? The Death Star is (small) Moon sized. That's HUGE. Just moving all the trash from the inner reaches of it to the surface for ejection would take a monumental effort. having the trash compacted would make that job more efficient.

As to the 2 moving wall thing maybe the designer was just stoopid

Who says the worm thing was there on purpose?

By Geeks R Us (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

2 moving walls is more frightening than 1.
A monster is more frightening than no monster.

The real problem here is the author has assumed we're looking at the entire mechanism and proceedure for trash disposal AND that the practice of dumping into space is still being employed.

The Death Star, being the next generation war ships is totally self contained and this is simply the first part in a multi-part process of sorting.

1- Lea (who was very familiar with the Death Star plans, duh) didn't blow open a vent, it was a service access for unblocking a dump chute. I mean someone is always clogging the thing with pizza boxes, so measures had to be taken.

2- Because of the massive resources needed to operate a Death Star, it recycles 100% of all waste, nothing is ejected into space anymore. (man that's so Episode I, dude)

3- The two walls are in the process of isolating, compressing and holding the solid matter so that it can be easily moved to the next phase of recycling and that requires it to be in a flat sheet like shape.

4- Two walls center the crushed material to the processing slot that we didn't see off camera.

5- The liquid in the chamber is simply as a means of dust control and organic removal (like pizza slices still in the box) and it acts an environment for the processing worm.

6 -Waste water (sewage) is not processed in this facility. That is recycled and used to lubricate the gun turrets on the surface (take the tour next time, man).

7- The worm has a chamber below the surface it can retreat to. The chamber isn't easy to find unless you're a processing worm. (or have the Death Star plans)

8- The Walls Move slowly to give the worm time to get out of the way.

9- You didn't really offer 9 unique points so this one is for padding.

I hope this makes your next viewing of Star Wars more enjoyable

I spent 20 years on submarines and we took care of trash and waste in the following manner.
1. Liquids were kept in 3 seperate types of tanks. Oily waste, usually from bilges. Grey water from sinks and showers. Black water from toilets. Once these tanks were full they were pumped or blown using compressed air overboard. There was no need to compact these, not to mention that you can't compact a liquid. You can comress it and have it under pressure, but as soon as the pressure is removed the liquid returns to it's original state.
2. Solid waste such as metal, paper, and such was compacted into cans using a ram and 3000lbs of hydralics. Each can would be filled and then compacted. it would take several passes to fill the can after each pass of the ram. In the end you would have a can about 3 foot tall and about 10 inches in diameter that would then be ejected overboard. To assume that the compactor would only make one pass and produce a flat plane of trash does not cut it. They would have compacted several times and made a cube of trash.
3. Organic waste such as food scraps were placed in waited bags and ejected overboard in the same manner as the cans.

For the Death Star, the easiest and most ecological method would have been to have pods that all of this trash and waste could be put in and shot toward a star. The heat of the star would just burn up all of the waste and nothing would be 'floating'in space for someone to run into. No fuel would be needed if they used some kind of rail gun and allowed the gravitational pull of the star to draw the pod in.

By sean frost (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

It's not really a trash compactor.
That simple.

It's a torture device. Not for prisoners, but for nitpickers.

If you want to talk about inefficiency, how about the idea that the weapon system of the death star is only a fraction of the total volume? Most of it appears to be empty space, so why not go free form? Then you have something that's light enough to quickly move into position and blast planets and then maneuver out before it can be attacked.

By wildcardjack (not verified) on 08 Jul 2007 #permalink

9. Space is NOT infinite.

The universe is finite, and expanding.

The real issue at hand is this...you NEED to get laid. It's just a movie. Not a very good one at that. Any analysis of it just takes away from it's enjoyment. Fix your acne, move out of you parents house and learn how to deal with real life. Freaks.

You're cool, Bub. And you really get jokes, so you're real smart too.

Reading the article reminds me of the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000:
"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes,
and other science facts,
Then repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show.
I should really just relax!'"

The answer is simple as to why the trash compactor was inefficient and unable to perform in a realistic capacity.

The Answer is this: Lowest Bidder.

With most government contracts they usually go out to the lowest bidder...

Mike - you seem very sure of that. If the universe is actually described by an open or flat Friedmann-Robertson-Walker model (which seems to agree quite well with the data) then it is infinite and expanding.

Compacting the trash, even if you're just ejecting it out into space does still make sense. The larger and more solid an object is the better it will show up on a radar system. If you start ejecting small stuff it can become a rather large problem for any oncoming ships. Something small like a rivet or chunk of scrap metal would be nearly impossible to pick up on radar and dodge yet if it picked up enough speed (say from the gravitational field of any near by moon-sized objects) it could cause serious damage to any smaller craft. Such as a TIE-fighter or something.

Soylent Green anyone? That seems at least the most reasonable way to recycle trash on an "evil empire" ship...

And what of the creature that lives in the trash compactor? Presumably, the creature survives because the moving walls do not extend all the way to the floor of the room, where the liquid is. After all, if the walls reached the floor, the creature would be killed each time trash is compacted.

Au contrare! If you recall, the creature lets go of Luke and disappears prior to the doors moving. My bet is the creature lives in the water system, and the trash compactor is just one of his many stops over the course of the day's bottom feeding.

wildcardjack, they did have that weapon, in the books. It was just the laser itself from the Death Star. The Death Star was also designed to be a HUGE moving space station, capable of sending enough troops, fire power and equipment to any system to subdue it first. And if it proves not capable of being subdued, then it will be destroyed.

The Deathstar is massive and obviously generates it's own gravitational field. Garbage dumped overboard would slowly orbit the station providing a hazard for any smaller craft departing and landing.

Liquids dumped overboard would mist and form a filmy sludge on the exterior. The would obscure any optics and electronic sensors.

I agree with the idea of the off-camera processing slot into which the large, flat, compacted pieces are fed, with the addition that the compacted slabs from all the garbage mashers onna detention level are then put together to make an enormous garbage slab sandwhich, which is fed to an even larger *non*-organic processing worm, which, incidentally, takes up all the so-called "empty space" in the rest of the Death Star. The rescuers are really lucky that they didn't enounter this beast, for it would have eaten, among other things, Luke's little elastic belt grappling hook, causing no end of dismay.

It's a trash compactor? The Death Star had a trash compactor?

Who Knew?

ALl these years I have labored under the false notion that the
Trash Compactor was just a metaphor for some grand idea that only Lucas could truly understand.

Now I know the truth...it was an implausibly designed metaphor.

get a life niggas