The humble trash truck is ready for an all-electric upgrade

Oregon’s first battery-powered garbage truck offers a look at the clean, carbon-free future of the dirty, diesel-powered world of waste collection.
By Maria Gallucci

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A white and green trash truck set against a bright orange background
(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media; Portland General Electric)

A powerful new electric vehicle recently started roaming the leaf-strewn streets of Portland, Oregon. Between its tires sits a hefty 400-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Inside its body is the daily detritus discarded by residents of downtown Portland.

The battery-powered garbage truck is the first of its kind in the state. COR Disposal and Recycling, which owns and operates the vehicle, debuted the truck in early November at a ceremony with the utility Portland General Electric. The zero-emissions model will collect trash in East Portland, an area that’s disproportionately affected by toxic diesel exhaust from garbage trucks, big rigs and other heavy-duty vehicles operating nearby.

We’re doing our due diligence to make sure that we’re not contaminating the environment anymore,” Alando Simpson, CEO of COR Disposal and Recycling, told Oregon Public Broadcasting earlier this month. He noted that the company primarily works within communities that aren’t getting the resources and investment to decarbonize for the future.”

Although the 66,000-pound trash hauler is unique in Oregon, it’s not the only electric garbage truck to navigate neighborhoods nationwide. Battery-powered models are steadily gaining traction in cities and towns as leaders work to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slash tailpipe pollution from their municipal refuse fleets, which spend many hours driving and idling outside people’s homes to perform a vital service.

As of late June, 48 zero-emissions refuse trucks had been deployed in the United States, according to data provided by Calstart, a clean transportation group. While that represents only a tiny fraction of the country’s tens of thousands of garbage trucks, it’s still more than double the number of battery-powered models deployed at the end of 2022.

Electrifying refuse trucks is a no-brainer,” said Ray Minjares, the heavy-duty vehicles program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.

It makes sense from an environmental and public health perspective, and we don’t hear them rumbling down the street as much,” he told Canary Media. And it’s good for the bottom line.”

As with most electrified transportation alternatives, battery-powered garbage trucks are generally cheaper to operate and maintain than diesel versions, experts say. Electric powertrains are far more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines, and electricity is typically less expensive as a fuel source than diesel — all of which lowers the cost per mile of driving a battery-powered truck.

Then there are the brakes. Garbage trucks can stop as often as 700 times a day as they go house to house, which quickly erodes the brakes in diesel trucks and racks up maintenance costs. In electric models, the regenerative braking system makes gentler stops and so wears down less frequently. It also partially recharges the vehicle’s battery, giving trucks more juice en route.

A man with medium tone skin and very short black hair wearing a navy blue coat and pink shirt
Alando Simpson, CEO of COR Disposal & Recycling, speaks about the company's first electric garbage truck in Portland, Oregon. (PGE)

Despite the potential benefits, however, one key barrier has kept many waste-handling companies from going electric: the upfront cost. A new battery-powered model is still two to three times more expensive to buy than a diesel version, Minjares said.

People see electric refuse trucks, or other electric vehicles, as a kind of luxury item, or something you have to pay a premium for,” he said. The challenge is, that’s not looking at the full picture of expenses.”

A handful of states now offer generous tax incentives and grant funding to municipalities and companies to help defray some of the costs of both purchasing zero-emissions vehicles and installing the necessary charging equipment, said Jessie Lund, Calstart’s deputy director of truck technology and partners.

Typically, the funding is tied to state-level policies aimed at slashing CO2 emissions from the state’s vehicles and fuel supply. The California Air Resources Board — which oversees the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and Advanced Clean Truck Act — offers point-of-sale discounts for zero-emissions trash haulers through its Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project. Colorado recently awarded funding for nine electric garbage trucks through its Clean Fleet Vehicle & Technology Grant Program.

Portland’s shiny, new electric truck — a Peterbilt Model 520EV — cost around $665,800. COR Disposal and Recycling bought the vehicle with support from Portland General Electric’s Drive Change Fund, which awards grants to electrify transportation using dollars from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Fuels Program. The utility also installed a DC fast-charging station on COR’s property, which can replenish the truck’s battery in about four hours.

At the federal level, funding provided under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) can also take a significant chunk out of the cost of buying e-trucks. The Commercial Clean Vehicle Credit offers businesses tax credits up to $40,000 for qualified vehicles, while the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle Program provides $1 billion through 2031 to help communities replace dirty trucks with zero-emissions vehicles and infrastructure.

The IRA funding in particular is projected to dramatically accelerate sales of electric refuse trucks, with zero-emissions models representing between 70 and 77 percent of refuse trucks sold in the United States by 2035 — an eye-popping leap from just 1 percent of today’s sales, the International Council on Clean Transportation said in a January white paper.

Nationwide, at least 75 cities are participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program, which gives technical guidance and support to local leaders working to adopt more alternative-fuel cars and trucks in their fleets.

A worker stands next to a garbage truck that is lifting up a garbage can
A worker places trash inside an all-electric garbage truck in Portland, Oregon. (PGE)

Still, even with the infusion of state and federal funding, companies face other important hurdles to ditching their diesel-driven haulers.

Longer waste-collection routes, particularly outside city centers, might require more battery power than trucks can currently provide on a single charge. In dense urban areas, range is typically less of an issue. In East Portland, for instance, COR’s typical route is around 60 miles; the Model 520EV can travel roughly 80 miles before needing to recharge.

When you start getting out into suburban routes, there are a lot of routes where electric trucks fit very well, but not all of them,” Scott Barraclough, the senior product manager for e-mobility at Mack Trucks, told the EV magazine Charged in September. What becomes important is identifying the routes where the truck will work and then assigning the truck to those routes.”

A few years ago, Mack Trucks built its first electric garbage truck for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Following a nearly yearlong pilot, the city opted to order seven of Mack’s LR Electric trucks for deployment. Despite the truck’s success as a trash collector, the vehicle hit an unexpected snag last winter. In New York City, garbage trucks are also required to serve as snow plows — an energy-intensive duty that requires more power than the truck’s batteries could provide.

They basically conked out after four hours, [and] we need them to go 12 hours,” Jessica Tisch, the city’s sanitation commissioner, told the New York City Council at a December 2022 meeting. She said that, unless the battery technology improves, the city might not be able to meet its 2040 deadline for transitioning to a zero-emissions fleet, the Commercial Carrier Journal reported.

As cities look to overcome these early hiccups and replace more of their fleets with battery-powered trucks, their next challenge will likely involve securing sufficient charging infrastructure. It often takes utilities years to upgrade and expand electricity capacity to supply the megawatts’ worth of power required to charge large numbers of vehicles. That could create a bottleneck that prevents companies from deploying e-trucks as quickly as they’d like.

We have this disconnect right now between the pace at which vehicle manufacturers can deploy products and the pace at which utilities can energize depots,” Minjares said, adding that solutions to this problem already exist — including installing on-site solar panels and backup batteries and using smart-charging software to balance demand from dozens of vehicles.

At the end of the day, we need utilities and their regulators to plan for this infrastructure…so that the infrastructure to energize these large depots is ready at the right time in the right locations,” he said.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.