When Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie exit stage left into the air vent on the floor of the detention level, they have a brief conversation:

Han: Look, I had everything under control until you led us down here. You know, it's not going to take them long to figure out what happened to us.

Leia: It could be worse...

...and of course a few minutes later they're being compacted.

The movie offers no obvious clues, but perhaps the novelization or other EU materials do: was the compactor turned on in a deliberate attempt to flush out the escapees and/or eliminate one of their physical dimensions for each storage? Or did it turn on at that point by happenstance (on a schedule, presumably), or perhaps because their weight triggered some kind of meter?

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    Robot Chicken thinks it was Darth Vader hitting the disposal button at his sink. Or a realtor showing off a Death Star apartment rental, and the buyer flicked a switch asking what it did; the realtor didn't know but apparently it was the trash compactor.
    – Mufasa
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:17
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    @Mufasa While you're right about Vader's garbage disposal, the relator was actually showing Cloud City apartments and the buyer flicked the switch that opened up the area below where a one-armed Luke had fallen. Unfortunately, Luke then fell onto the satellite antenna, so the apartment's TV couldn't get reception. Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 4:14
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    Perhaps the dianoga set it off after having failed to get its lunch. Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 12:51

3 Answers 3


As Han explained in The Empire Strikes Back, the Imperials' standard operating procedure is to dump their garbage before going to Hyperspace.

Since the Death Star had completed its mission in the Alderaan system and was likely preparing to jump away, they may well have been compressing their garbage before dumping it.

Once C-3PO realized what was happening he was also screaming hysterically at R2 "Shut them down, shut them all down!" so it seems there was more than just that one garbage chamber being compressed at the time.

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    That makes no sense to me. Space is quite wide open, when they dump, why compact? Compaction makes only sense when you have no way/intention to dump, but need more space on board to store more waste. Also 3PO was shutting them down because Luke asked him to shut down all on the detention level, probably knowing that it takes too long to find that one they are in. Also the words were "No shut them all down hurry" which always made me think it was a response to a question of R2 which one was to be shut down.
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 10:41
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    perhaps they compact it for the recycling ship to pick it up and take it somewhere to be recycled. Perhaps they dont just fill space with their rubbish - its the ONE place where you see the side of the empire that cares for its environment and manages resources well.
    – MD-Tech
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 11:26
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    @PlasmaHH people used to say the same about Earth, "there's loads of space, I can just dump my trash here". Also, remember that most jumps are made to/from habitable planets/moons whatever. The locals won't appreciate you littering their orbits with your trash. Compacting greatly reduces the volume of floating space junk.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 12:44
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    @terdon: space is huge. You could cut a death star into arm sized chunks, distribute it in a star system, and have the amount of objects you could run into increased by extremely tiny amounts (there are estimated to be 150 million objects of size at least 100 meter in our solar system, cut that down to a meter in size and you have many many many many many objects already being there). Plus dumping them into a nice trajectory towards a planet will give them a quite nice fireworks.
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 12:53
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    Space may be quite huge and wide open, but a moon-size ship is still kinda big. If your SOP is to dump the trash before departing you have to get the trash to the aft end of your ship before heaving it overboard. You can build rather large (and smelly) conduits for the uncompacted waste or you can compact it close to it's origin, wrap it (much easier to bundle up a known shape) and move it out via multipurpose corridors. You can also plug a cheap motor into the wrapper that will push the waste into a solar-impact orbit. Smaller ships seem to do it the messy way, but their hull isn't as deep.
    – paul
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 13:59

It's hard to find any solid canonic answer to things like this, but let's take a look at it from an analytical standpoint.

There are three possible answers:

First option : Someone had given the order, or flipped a switch, to make the Garbage Compactor do its thing (hopefully with the chance of killing the people in it.) This seems like the most plausible thing at first. The heroes are being chased, they jump down a vent and find themselves in the trash compactor, and the villains of the movie activate them to worsen their peril.

But after looking at the scene a bit, it seems highly unlikely, the biggest con being that Imperial ships, and even the death star, seems to have no to low surveillance, so no one could really validate that they were down there.

Alas, Han Solo actually gives us the best clue in his quote : "It's not gonna' take them long to figure out what happened to us." clearly meaning that they escaped down the garbage chute.

And given the squad is right on their heels, and a big blasted hole can be seen in the corridor, it would not be unlikely that one trooper reported "Sir, they fled down the garbage chute", and another went "activate all garbage compactors, that should take care of them".

But in fairness, let's look at the other possible options:

Second option : The garbage compactor just compacts within a certain time interval, and was doing so here.

Now this is a horrible impractical invention if it's true. Having compactors set on an interval, would make them cost power when no trash is even there, and if they get overflooded, there would be nothing to do but wait to the next cycle. Then again, the garbage compactors are rather inefficient due to other things, like : - 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? - 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?

So since there are no clues in the movies about this system, we can only say that it's highly unlikely. Given that the existing waste has mold, rust, heck even a native creature living there, its clear that these intervals would have to be wide apart. Having said that, Han Solo and friends are having a string of bad luck, so yeah...

Third option : The garbage compactor starts it's process when it's reached a certain amount of trash, or detected any specific elements.

This would be the logical way of building a deep space garbage disposal unit, BUT there is still plenty of room in the garbage compactor when it starts. Some say that it might be triggered by weight, and our four heroes triggered some weightplate, but that would make no sense to build a garbage sensory system on this. A theory is that the garbage room detected lifesigns, and to get rid of the Dianoga that plague the trash systems. But if this is true, it's clearly super ineffective. Lastly, some say that the process is triggered by the blaster rifle being fired at the door. Personally, I don't understand why this sensor would be installed (and even less who installs a door in the bottom of a garbage compactor), and the room doesn't really seem to "care" that the laser beam bounces around.

Fun fact : Did you know that the texture of the garbage walls were recycled as internal wall texture for the WALL-A robots in the movie Wall-E ? Well now you do.

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    @JoeL.: 'Accidentally'. R2: "Beep Boop Bwooo" 3P0: "What do you mean, 'they'll learn to respect me', R2? What are you doing?" [time passes] "Oh no! Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!"
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 14:16
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    One mark against purposeful starting of the compactor (#1): Vader and Tarkin wanted them to escape, to take the tracking device to the Rebel Base on Yavin's moon. To be fair, they let a number of soldiers die to make the escape seem contested (though Leia did see through the ruse), so maybe not all the troopers got the memo that they were being allowed to escape...
    – Kristian H
    Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:03
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    If I was designing a Supreme Engine of Evil like the Death Star, I would design the trash compactors to automatically start when they detect humans in them. The occasional loss of a careless mook would be more than outweighed by the chance of destroying my escaping enemies, as well as being highly entertaining. Bwahahahaha. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 15:09
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    Another option is the standard operating procedure is to dump their garbage before jumping to Hyperspace. They'd finished their job at Alderaan, so they may have been compacting garbage in preparation for leaving the system. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 16:36
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    @AdrianoVaroliPiazza I'm not servicing the compactor. I'm the Evil Overlord. Commented Sep 11, 2014 at 16:50

Another clue that's offered is when they're out of the compactor Han calls Chewie over who shakes his head, and Han fires a laser blast into the compactor which echoes up through the station.

Right before he fires Leia yells "No! They'll hear!!"

Which could imply that the Imperials were still trying to figure out where they had gone. Lets be honest the storm troopers aren't exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer (hitting their heads on sliding doors when they enter rooms for example) so it could be arguable that they legitimately weren't aware they'd gone into the garbage compactor.


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