The waste truck glides with ease through the empty streets in the early morning hours. It stops and starts as it goes door to door without leaving smelly, dark fumes in its wake. Inside the truck cabin, relaxed workers are talking to each other. The sun is rising in Gothenburg.
In Sweden’s second-biggest city, a scene like this has been the norm since 2019. That’s when the municipality began to employ electric rubbish trucks, driving a shift to sustainable heavy-duty vehicles.
When it comes to greenhouse gas emitting vehicles, it’s easy to think of old cars or long-haul trucks. However, the list is long and includes less visible culprits like fossil fuel guzzling waste collection trucks. In Europe’s sustainable cities of the future, they too will have to go.
Gothenburg got ahead of the game, and for the past seven years, it made lowering waste truck emissions a priority. The move is in line with its environmental history and goals: in 1996, the municipality was the first in the world to introduce a low-emission zone for heavy-duty vehicles.
In a 2015 public procurement process, Gothenburg took it up a notch: it asked companies in charge of waste collection in the city to use vans powered by biodiesel or equivalent materials. Three years later, it mandated that five of those vehicles be electric.
The choice appeared unusual, if not quirky, at the time, says Peter Årnes, the man behind the idea and an Expert from the Waste, Sustainable Waste and Water Department in Gothenburg: “Some people thought I was mad, but afterwards I become a hero.”
What’s more, a significant hurdle lined the road to Årnes’ climate ambitions: the market offered only a few viable electric waste trucks, so where to buy models that could meet Gothenburg’s sustainable innovation needs?
Then a household carmaker entered the scene.
A win-win situation
Gothenburg hosts the headquarters of Volvo Trucks – and this proximity helped strike a successful deal. When the municipality learned that the Swedish giant was interested in producing electric trucks, it naturally jumped at the chance. “The first one should be a waste truck and it should be here in Gothenburg,” Årnes says, recalling a conversation with Volvo Trucks’ management.
The city had three requests: the trucks had to be small enough to drive through the inner-city streets, but big enough to carry five tons of waste. Their batteries had to last the whole day because it was a lot more practical to recharge them only once during the night.
The idea received a nod of approval from the company. After all, this promised to be a beneficial endeavour for both parties, Årnes remarks: “Volvo Trucks thought that it was a very good thing to test their products in their own city, so there was a mutual interest between the municipality and the carmaker to work together.”
Lars Mårtensson, Volvo Trucks’ Environment and Innovation Director in Gothenburg agrees; he says that the company was responding to pressing demands. “There is a transformation going on in the transport sector due to the urgent need to reduce the climate impact,” he remarks.
In 2018, Volvo Trucks introduced the first electric rubbish vehicle prototype – a year later, the truck hit the road and started its waste collection round in Gothenburg.
The e-vehicle not only helped to change the air, but improved staff’s mood and quality of life, Årnes says: “The truck had a very big impact on waste-collecting workers driving in it. They soon found out that in the afternoon they were not as tired as they used to be. Unlikely previous diesel models, this one produced no noise, so the workers got to know their colleagues and talk to them all the time while driving around town. It was a big social thing.”
Exporting the Gothenburg model
A few years later and with many successful e-drives around town, Gothenburg was ready to swap its lessons with others across the continent. In 2021, the city joined the Big Buyers for Climate & Environment initiative. In February 2022, the Swedish municipality hosted a study visit to showcase its work to 15 other municipalities and waste collection companies.
With e-trucks not equally available across Europe and often in scarce supply, Gothenburg’s experience is helping pave the way for others to follow. Examples are scarce, with only a handful of cities currently employing electric waste trucks, such as Amsterdam, Oslo, Rotterdam, and Lyon.
“We started early because we think that municipalities have a responsibility to make things happen when the market is not ready for it yet,” Årnes explains.
The Big Buyers for Climate & Environment initiative brings together cities’ administrations and publicly owned entities to respond to their demand for innovative, sustainable products and services.
Launched in 2018, Big Buyers for Climate & Environment is funded by the European Commission. Thanks to the project, cities and other public institutions encourage private companies to offer sustainable products and services that are not immediately available on the market. Public entities also work together to share knowledge and innovations on the strategic use of procurements. Most municipalities taking part in the scheme pledged to achieve 90% or 100% greenhouse emission reduction by 2030.
Scania joins in
Gothenburg’s first advice to fellow Big Buyers cities: choose truck models carefully and consider the balance. Municipalities need waste collecting vehicles with batteries that can last all day. On the other hand, the most powerful batteries are also heavy, which limits the amount of waste that they can transport.
“You need to think thoroughly before deciding what type of trucks you will buy. How far do your trucks need to go? How many tons will they need to carry? Finding the right compromise between battery power and payload is especially important,” warns Årnes.
In a similar way, cities should rely on an adequate infrastructure to ensure that all e-trucks can be properly charged, warns Årnes.
“Now you can buy and have an electric truck, but it’s not sure that you can charge it properly,” he remarks.
Adding to Volvo Trucks’ successful e-models, Swedish manufacturer Scania soon offered its own contribution to Gothenburg’s clean transport ambitions with a hydrogen-powered collection truck. In 2021, the vehicle, which is noiseless and releases clean water instead of toxic gases, joined the city’s growing sustainable heavy-truck fleet.
For Big Buyers participating municipalities, the project’s February 2022 Gothenburg study visit was a chance to take it all in and “to talk with market actors from Volvo Trucks and Scania,” says Anja De Cunto, Eurocities’ Project Coordinator and Policy Advisor for Food and Procurement: “It allowed us to take a close look at the added value and challenges that come with the purchase of an electric heavy-duty vehicles for waste collection.”
“Participants of the Big Buyers project have great ambitions, but the market is not always able to follow. Today, there is more than a one-year wait for hydrogen or electric trucks; they’re still pricey but their performance isn’t yet comparable to that of diesel equivalents. This makes the transition to emission-free rubbish trucks challenging even for the most ambitious local authorities,” De Cunto adds.
Despite this, Gothenburg is undeterred: by 2026 the municipality wants to rely exclusively on electric vehicles for waste collection.
Meanwhile, rubbish collectors continue their happy rounds. “They were initially skeptical about driving an electric truck, but they changed their mind after just two days. And now they’re really sad whenever they can’t use the truck because it’s at the workshop,” Årnes says.
Lars Mårtensson, Volvo Trucks’ Environment and Innovation Director in Gothenburg, speaks at the February 2022 study visit in his city.