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Fuel of the future


A new generation of alternative fuel fleets is hitting roads across the country.
Last month in the Metro Vancouver region, Waste Management unveiled 20 new garbage and recycling trucks powered by compressed natural gas, or CNG. At the request of Vancouver residents, who were sensitive to the noise and emissions of traditional diesel-powered vehicles, Waste Management deployed the new fleet, which has a significantly improved environmental profile. It’s a trend that is playing out across North America as municipalities and service providers take steps to improve residents’ quality of life and meet sustainability goals.
The benefits of CNG-powered vehicles are well known in the industry, but it is worth repeating some of the most salient points. These vehicles cut emissions greatly: they produce nearly zero air particles and reduce nitrogen and sulfur compounds, by more than 90 percent. In addition to burning cleaner, CNG engines cut greenhouse gas emissions 20-25 percent, an important factor for many municipalities looking to make their operations more environmentally friendly. Beyond this, CNG trucks are far quieter than their diesel predecessors, which is especially relevant for fleets servicing dense downtown areas that mix retail with residential units.
The deployment in the Metro Vancouver market is part of a larger effort by Waste Management is part of its sustainability initiative to increase efficiency by 15% and reduce emissions by 15%. In a sector as massive as the waste and recycling collection industry, the potential for savings is significant. To put things in perspective, a 15 percent reduction in Waste Management’s fleet fuel consumption would total about 350 million gallons of fuel, and reduce about 3.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Some of these savings and efficiencies will come from currently available technology, including CNG; others are now in the development stage, where investment will act as an incentive for the commercial development of promising technology.
Alternative fuels are a major part of the industry’s drive to energy efficiency. In addition to cost savings associated with CNG fuel, transitioning a fleet away from diesel also opens possibilities to power fleets with landfill, gas-derived methane. Powering waste collection vehicles with fuel from waste can help close the loop on sustainability, and Waste Management has validated the viability of this approach with a joint venture with Linde North America our Altamont Landfill facility in California, where we are currently producing up to 13,000 gallons of LNG per day, enough to power 300 collection vehicles.
Technology is another way to improve the environmental profile of the waste and recycling industry’s fleet. For example, companies can program truck engines to shut down automatically after idling for five minutes, both to save fuel and reduce emissions. Haulers can implement route optimization software to make collection as efficient and unobtrusive as possible. And major investors in fleet infrastructure can use financial leverage to induce manufacturers to provide the industry with cleaner, more efficient vehicles. For example, major fleet vendors realize the business potential of developing vehicles that are more efficient and are field-testing alternative fuel vehicles to be deployed as collection vehicles. Designing lightweight hybrid systems to withstand the demanding nature of waste collection vehicles is a challenge, but signs are promising that the technology will be ready for deployment in the near future.
But the waste and recycling service sector cannot do this alone. The public sector must play a major role as well. Here, signs are promising. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed the SmartWay Transport Partnership, similar to the Energy Star program for household appliances. In 2010, Waste Management became the first company with a vocational fleet to become a SmartWay Partner, and we hope others will join in the effort. The public and private sectors must communicate openly about the challenges associated with alternative fuel fleets, particularly the long-term nature of cost savings associated with CNG. Though CNG trucks cost less to fuel compared to diesel, they are often more expensive to purchase, and require investment in capital-intensive CNG refueling stations.
The industry’s approach in recent years – deployment of available technologies with development of newer approaches, and synergy between private investment and public support – will help not only improve collection and transportation fleets, but move the entire industry forward with cleaner, more efficient technology.


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