We have all been there at some point…stuck in our car behind a garbage truck as it makes frequent stops to collect waste and recycling. We see and smell the dark plumes of exhaust released from these loud, diesel-powered trucks. We might even wonder if there is a more environmentally friendly way to collect garbage.
In an effort to improve their image and environmental impact, waste management companies and departments of sanitation around the globe are moving their refuse fleets to natural gas (also known as compressed natural gas – CNG). So what is natural gas? It is an odorless, gaseous mixture of hydrocarbons (mostly methane). It accounts for about 25% of the energy used in the United States split equally between residential and commercial uses (heating and cooking), industrial uses, and electric power production. An alternative fuel that has long been used to power natural gas vehicles, but only about 0.1% is used for transportation fuel.
The majority of natural gas used in the US is considered a fossil fuel derived from sources formed over millions of years by the action of heat and pressure on organic materials. Renewable natural gas (RNG) or biomethane is produced from organic materials like waste from landfills and livestock. Currently two forms of domestically produced natural gas are commercially available and used in vehicles – CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG).
From Smithtown to Palm Dessert to New York City - Municipalities are Making Big Changes
In the United States, California was the first state where CNG-powered refuse trucks were introduced. Their use quickly widens beyond state boundaries. Now these new and improved trucks powered by a more earth friendly fuel operate in almost every major city in North America.
Driven by the stable availability of fixed long-term natural gas fuel prices, the Town of Smithtown, New York converted its entire fleet of refuse trucks from diesel to CNG. The conversion allowed the city to manage its municipal budget without the price volatility associated with diesel fuel. In addition to saving money and positively affecting the environment, drivers of the converted vehicles have found the vehicles’ quietness and power far more enjoyable than the diesel vehicles. The conversion became the town’s poster child for cleaner municipal services and motivated other departments to convert their vehicles (shuttle buses, street cleaners, snowplows, etc.) to CNG.
The City of New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) runs the largest municipal garbage truck fleet in the United States. In 1992, the city kicked off a pilot project testing six CNG-powered refuse trucks. When the city decided to address air pollution issues for aggressively, DSNY became part of the solution by switching its fleet of trucks to CNG, which are quieter and cleaner. No more diesel smoke spilling into the air.
Waste Management was approached by the mayor of Palm Dessert, California in 1996, who asked them to convert its fleet of trucks to natural gas. In doing so, Waste Management now operates the largest heavy-duty truck fleet (nearly 4,100 vehicles) powered by natural gas.
Efforts Toward Sustainability Do Not Stop at Natural Gas – Renewable Gas is on the Horizon
Continuing to find ways to improve sustainability, waste management companies are looking at ways to use RNG – captured methane. Collecting the gas from the landfills the companies operate aims to reduce the environmental impact of waste collection operations. Imagine a closed-loop system where garbage trucks are powered by the waste they collect.
Is this just a vision? Not at all. The award-winning Altamont Landfill and Resource Recovery Facility in California is recognized for its sustainable practices and leadership in landfill management. The landfill hosts the world’s most successful landfill gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, and electricity-generating landfill gas-powered turbines and windmills.
How Big an Impact Could Such Conversions Have?
NGVAmerica, a national organization dedicated to the development of a growing, profitable, and sustainable market for vehicles powered by natural gas, reports 152,300 total U.S. natural gas vehicle (NGV) inventory consisting of 87,000 light-duty vehicles, 25,800 medium-duty vehicles, and 39,500 heavy-duty vehicles. Worldwide about 15.2 million NGVs travel roads and highways. Refuse truck sales captured more than 50% of the market as the industry’s largest fleets (Waste Management, Republic Services, and Progressive Waste Solutions) continue to transition to natural gas.
Vehicles that run on CNG are good choices for high-mileage, centrally fueled fleets that operate within a limited area. Vehicles traveling long distances benefit from LNG.
Compared to petroleum-based fuels, the NGV industry enjoys a number of benefits including abundant domestic availability, long-term supply (energy security), widespread distribution infrastructure, stable and predictable pricing, cost savings of 30-50% to fleets, and reduced greenhouse gas / carbon emissions. As gasoline prices increase, alternative fuels appeal more to vehicle fleet managers and consumers. Like gasoline, alternative fuel prices can fluctuate based on location, time of year, and political climate. With fewer diesel trucks on the roads, cities experience lower noise pollution, and less exhaust fumes and diesel smoke.
We applaud innovation and support the efforts of cities and companies focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of waste and recycling efforts
Want to learn more? Check out these related cost calcuators, search tools, and case studies...
- To find national average fuel price comparisons, check out this report.
- Use the Natural Gas Cost Calculator to discover the total cost of ownership and emissions
- For municipalities considering making the switch to natural gas, the U.S. Department of Energy offers this alternative fuel vehicle search tool that allows users to search by truck type and fuel.
- Landfills Convert Biogas Into Renewable Natural Gas: a video case study.
- Los Angeles Public Works Fleet Converts to Natural Gas: another video case study.