What Toronto Can Learn from Chicago’s Electric Garbage Truck
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What Toronto Can Learn from Chicago’s Electric Garbage Truck

Electric garbage trucks are poised to deliver more than just peaceful mornings.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo courtesy of Motiv.

Photo courtesy of Motiv.

Cities are noisy places. From the clatter of construction to the screech of the subway, urbanites live with loud and often unexpected sounds at all hours of the day. The rumble of the garbage truck as it pauses between pickups is one of the sounds that is as iconic as it is irritating.

Thanks to North America’s first all-electric garbage truck, residents of some Chicago neighbourhoods start the day without the morning roar of solid waste management. Unlike conventional diesel vehicles, Chicago’s electric garbage truck does not idle loudly as it makes its way between buildings. However, electric garbage trucks are poised to deliver more than just peaceful mornings.

Chicago’s electric garbage truck was developed by Motiv Power Systems in response to a competitive request for proposals looking for environmentally friendly ways to collect garbage throughout the city.

Despite this ambitious project, garbage collection poses challenges for electric vehicles. Notably, garbage trucks have to haul heavy loads that call for powerful batteries. Chicago’s electric garbage truck has a carrying capacity of nine tons and operates a trash compactor with a compression capacity of 1,000 pounds per cubic yard. It’s also equipped with 200 kilowatt hours of energy, more than twice that of a Tesla.

These specs may seem daunting, but the demands of garbage collection actually increase the benefits of electrification. For one thing, the higher fuel use of heavy-duty vehicles means more savings in terms of both costs and carbon emissions.

When Motiv’s electric garbage truck first hit the road in Chicago in 2014, the conventional diesel trucks used $70 worth of fuel per day while the new truck needed just $7 per day of electricity for charging. As a result, the electric garbage truck saves 2,668 gallons of fuel a year and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 68 tons. Motiv has calculated that electrifying one quarter of Chicago’s garbage trucks would save 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide in a single year.

In addition to improving energy efficiency, urban garbage collection is well-suited to the current state of electric vehicle technology. Jim Castelaz, founder and CEO of Motiv, explains that “electric would be a really great power for city garbage trucks because of their route profile.”

Garbage trucks are rarely required to drive at high speeds in cities, but predictable routes create time for vehicles to recharge before returning to the road. Chicago’s electric garbage truck can cover 60 miles at up to 50 miles per hour on an eight-hour charge. That won’t get you far in commercial trucking, but it’s enough mileage to pick up a lot of residential garbage bins.

Another feature of urban garbage collection is frequent stops and starts, which Castelaz compares to “drag racing from house to house.” Although this kind of driving is hard on most vehicles, it allows the electric garbage truck to take full advantage of regenerative brakes—essentially recapturing the energy needed to stop the truck to recharge the battery.

Toronto and Chicago share locations on the shores of the Great Lakes and similar-sized populations, but the two cities have taken different approaches to reducing the environmental impact of garbage collection. While the City of Chicago has supported a pre-commercial technology, the City of Toronto has invested in vehicles that run on compressed natural gas.

Natasha Hinds Fitzsimmins from the City of Toronto says that there are currently 42 compressed natural gas garbage packers in service, with 28 more set to join the fleet by February 2017. There’s no mention in the City’s Green Fleet Plan [PDF] of expanding the use of electric vehicles, but garbage trucks are only one possible application of the technology for municipal services.

Aside from cars that don’t offer the predictable routes or fuel payback that make electric worth it, engines have also been developed for delivery trucks and shuttle buses. “We need cities who are willing to step up and be on the cutting edge of technology,” Castelaz says.

Now it’s up to local governments to think creatively about how electric vehicles could help their communities, whether by decreasing dependency on fossil fuels or removing some of the noise from our morning routines.