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North America’s First Electric Garbage Truck Is Silently Driving Chicago Streets

The Windy City is rolling out emissions-free garbage trucks that save money and reduce noise pollution.

If you live in a city, you’ve probably had the experience of waking up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to the sound of a garbage truck rumbling outside your apartment, pumping diesel exhaust through your window. If you live in Chicago, however, that experience may soon change: The city now has the country’s first electric garbage truck, which runs on a nearly silent motor, and plans to slowly phase electric vehicles into its full fleet.

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For the city, it’s a way to eliminate a huge amount of pollution. Even when an electric truck plugs into Chicago’s not-entirely-clean grid, a single electric truck can offset 55 barrels of oil and 23 tons of carbon dioxide in a year. And since the vehicles are 100% electric, no pollution comes out of the tailpipe at all. If you’re walking past the truck, or stuck in a bike lane behind it, you’ll be able to breathe.


Chicago, like other cities, had also experimented with other alternative garbage trucks like hybrids (along the lines of this technology from a Tesla co-founder) and trucks that ran on natural gas instead of diesel, but neither ended up working particularly well. The hybrids they tested didn’t save enough fuel, and the natural gas trucks required new fueling stations that cost $1 to $2 million a pop–too expensive for a city with a fleet of 600 trucks.

The electric trucks can actually save the city money, though they’re more expensive to manufacture than a typical truck. “If you look at regular trucks, they get around 1.4 miles per gallon,” says Jim Castelaz, CEO and founder of Motiv Power Systems, the company that designed the electric powertrain for the new truck. “They’re spending a lot on fuel, every mile, every day, every year. The fuel bill for a truck over its lifetime is much higher than the purchase price. If you can reduce that the truck can pay for itself.”

A typical garbage truck in Chicago lasts about 12 years, after taking a beating from road salt and corrosives in the trash itself. “Everything kind of breaks on that truck at once after 12 years…at the end of the life, the trucks are pretty much not useful in any way,” Castelaz explains. “They end up replacing about 50 trucks every year. Their plan is to kind of roll electric trucks into that stock replacement schedule that they already have.”


The new truck looks and works pretty much like the older version; it’s tough enough to carry nine tons of trash and compact 1,000 pounds per cubic yard. But it’s more fun to drive. “If you’re driving this truck, you don’t have to sit two feet away from this hot, smelly shaking noisy diesel engine,” Castelez says. And at the end of the day, instead of rolling up to a diesel pump, the truck plugs in for eight hours. Inside, ten battery packs store enough energy to drive 60 miles.

Over the next five years, Chicago plans to purchase up to 20 of the new trucks, and Motiv plans to begin working with other cities as well. “I can’t wait until they bring it to my town where I live and I won’t get woken up every Tuesday morning by the trash truck,” says Castelez.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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