The number of garbage trucks being powered by natural gas instead of diesel fuel is growing, according to a three-year study which found that out of the 136,000 garbage trucks operating in the United States, 1,500 are powered by natural gas. The report, “Greening Garbage Trucks: Trends in Alternative Fuel Use, 2002–2005,” also cited that the amount of garbage trucks switching to natural gas operation tripled from 1998–2002 and doubled from 2002–2005. Released in February, the study was conducted by the independent research organization, INFORM, Inc.

Natural gas offers many advantages when compared to diesel. Using natural gas helps reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, and although prices have recently increased, natural gas still costs less per gallon equivalent than diesel. In addition, natural gas engines are quieter than diesel engines and run more cleanly, emitting less particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.

“INFORM has estimated that if every conventional diesel-burning garbage truck in use in the U.S. today is replaced with a new natural gas model, one ton of nitrogen oxide—a key component of health-threatening smog—is eliminated,” said the report’s author, James Cannon.

Natural-gas powered garbage trucks are becoming more popular in the United States and around the world. Natural-gas powered garbage trucks are becoming more popular in the United States and around the world.

Natural-gas powered garbage trucks are becoming more popular in the United States and around the world. Credit: DOE/NREL, Warren Gretz

According to the study, the refuse business collects garbage from more than 75 million homes, 7 million businesses, and 100,000 government enterprises nationwide. Although natural gas-powered garbage trucks only constitute about 1 percent of the overall fleet, they comprise the country’s second largest segment of heavy-duty natural gas vehicles after transit buses. California, with 1,268 natural gas-powered garbage trucks, has the most of any state, but these vehicles are found in Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Washington, D.C., as well. The movement also has spread internationally, with a combined total of approximately eight hundred spread across Belgium, France, Japan, the Netherlands, and Spain.

INFORM’s report identified several factors that influence fleet operators when deciding what fuel will power their trucks. Some of these include: (1) available state incentives for alternative fuel use, (2) fuel prices, (3) national energy security concerns, (4) new engine emission standards, (5) strong industry presence in the refuse truck market, (6) public health concerns, and (7) benefits of less noise.

“Replacing diesel fuel-powered trucks with trucks powered by natural gas is a tremendous opportunity not only for cleaner air and quieter neighborhoods, but also for reducing reliance on a fuel coming from risky and unreliable foreign sources,” said Joanna Underwood, President of INFORM. “Due to the start-and-stop operation of refuse trucks, these trucks average less than three miles per gallon, making them one of the least fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Replacing one-half of the 136,000 diesel-burning garbage trucks in the U.S. with natural gas-fueled trucks would displace almost 15 million barrels of oil each year.”

Founded in 1974, INFORM’s goal is to identify ways of conducting business that ensure environmentally sustainable economic growth. Its work is funded by more than forty foundations, twenty-four corporations, and government grants.

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