Local authorities should switch to electric refuse vehicles, says report

Switching the UK’s diesel-powered refuse collection vehicles (RCVs) for electric trucks could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 290,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, according to a new report from Eunomia Research and Consulting.

A Geesinknorba electric vehicle

The report, ‘Ditching diesel – a cost-benefit analysis of electric refuse collection vehicles’, has found a strong case for local authorities to trial electric RCVs (eRCVs), with evidence suggesting that the switch would result in a carbon saving equivalent to every person in the UK recycling an extra 250 plastic bottles a year.

Electric RCVs, which release no exhaust fumes, would improve air quality by reducing emissions of harmful Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), resulting in significant public health benefits, while potential greenhouse gas emissions savings are set to increase even further as grid electricity decarbonises in the future.

With regard to financial costs, the lower capital costs of a diesel RCV would be largely offset by the lower running costs of an eRCV – although the total cost of ownership for an eRCV is £29,608 greater than that of the diesel equivalent, the eRCV’s saving would be £12,364 if the monetised impact of carbon emissions is included.

Although relevant infrastructure for eRCVs – for example, charging points – would need to be established, local authorities would make savings on the expenditure needed to clean up the environmental damage caused by diesel vehicles.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Tanguy Tomes, report author, said: “With RCVs visiting almost every street in Britain on a weekly basis, they are a significant part of our current carbon intense society. Local authorities are looking for ways that they can reduce their contribution to the climate crisis, and eliminating the huge amount of carbon released on a daily basis by diesel RCVs is a logical, and now financially viable, step.

“We hope that our research will help local authorities to build a solid business case for the urgent change that is required: with a reduction in greenhouse gases, harmful air emissions and noise, and with financial savings becoming more likely, the case for eRCVs is becoming compelling.”

Although concerns have been raised over the capabilities of electric vehicles in hilly areas, the report suggests that eRCVs are able to handle steep slopes, citing the example of Frederiksberg in Denmark, which has reported improved hill performance over diesel vehicles.

In terms of the reduced noise of electric engines, Eunomia’s report suggests that although silent vehicles could pose potential risks to pedestrians, these risks could be mitigated by the use of warning sounds by the vehicles, while the reduced noise pollution will result in overall positive health impacts. 

A solution to the climate emergency?

With over 200 UK local authorities now having declared climate emergencies, eRCVs could prove crucial in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, helping councils to cut emissions and improve air quality.

Some UK local authorities are beginning to make the switch – the City of London will be the first council to implement a fully electric fleet, as part of a new contract with Veolia, whilst several other councils, including Sheffield and Westminster, are also trialling the technology.

Eunomia’s report does consider other alternative technologies – including biodiesel, CNG, biogas and hydrogen – but concludes that, whilst the technology is rapidly evolving, eRCVs provide air quality and CO2 emissions advantages over vehicles that rely on the combustion of hydrogen.

Whilst eRCVs are clearly preferable to diesel alternatives, it’s important to recognise that electric vehicles are not without environmental costs, as the batteries that power them rely on the carbon-intensive extraction of mined minerals. The carbon-cutting benefits of the switch to eRCVs could be further complemented by an increased focus on waste reduction, reducing the frequency of waste collections and optimising routes to maximise the environmental benefits.

You can read the report in full on the Eunomia website.

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