Seattle’s garbage trucks have a gas greenwashing problem

February 16, 2023


Gas Leaks


“Renewable natural gas” is the gas industry’s new favorite marketing scheme — a way to look like they’re selling a cleaner product than methane gas from fracking. The industry spends millions advertising it, even though its own studies show that it isn’t a real solution to the growing pollution from the gas system.

Many Seattle residents know this all too well — their garbage trucks read “Breathe Clean, Seattle: Powered by Renewable Natural Gas.” But data uncovered by Gas Leaks shows that it’s highly unlikely the trucks are running on anything other than conventional methane gas. By allowing the ads, Seattle is providing what amounts to free publicity for the concept of “renewable natural gas,” which oil and gas industry giants like Chevron are actively using as public relations cover for the continued expansion of fossil fuels.

Today, Gas Leaks joined the Sierra Club, 350 Seattle and Breach Collective in asking the city of Seattle and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson to address the misleading information that Waste Management is advertising regarding its use of “renewable natural gas.” The coalition asked the agencies to demand accounting from Waste Management as to where it is sourcing any “renewable natural gas” (or biogas) it claims to be using. If the company is unable to prove that their trucks are running on substantial amounts of biogas, they should be forced to remove that statement from the sides of their trucks. 

What is “renewable natural gas”?

Also known as biogas, “renewable natural gas” is methane captured from landfills, sewage treatment plants and large dairies and mixed into existing methane gas pipelines. But studies by governmental agencies, environmental advocates and the gas industry itself have found that supplies of biogas are limited and could never displace more than a very small portion of existing methane gas use.

Are Waste Management’s trucks actually running on biogas?

Under the contract the company signed with the city in 2018, Waste Management is required to use 100% “renewable natural gas.” The company’s 2021 sustainability report (page 45) says that all of the company’s trucks in Washington run on 100% biogas, but page 43 of the report also shows that the company doesn’t capture gas at any of its landfills in Washington. The closest landfill to Seattle — Cedar Hills Regional Landfill — delivers 3,578 MMBtu/day of captured and processed methane to a distribution pipeline run by Puget Sound Energy and Williams. That pipeline has a total capacity of nearly 1 million MMBtu, meaning that the biogas makes up .3 percent of the total gas, with the rest likely consisting of “conventional” methane, mostly from fracking in Canada. 

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce’s 2018 report on biogas, all the environmental credits associated with existing biogas projects — including Cedar Hills — were being sold out of state as part of other states’ clean fuels programs. According to the report, other nearby landfills — like LRI Landfill in Graham and the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant in Woodinville — turn their captured gas into onsite electricity, not pipeline gas. Aside from landfills and wastewater treatment plants, the other primary source of potential biogas is industrial dairies and farms. According to the state’s report, none are in the King County area, with most clustered far away from the region.

A copy of Waste Mangement’s fleet report to the city, acquired through a public records request, contains no data regarding the source of biogas in Waste Management’s trucks. According to the Western Washington Clean Cities Coaltion’s Alternative Fuels tracker, Waste Management runs the nearest compressed natural gas fueling station to Seattle – the “Clean n’ Green” CNG station, but Waste Management’s sustainability reports have no record of where they source their gas for that facility, or if the gas delivered is biogas or conventional methane. According to Waste Management’s most recent sustainability report (page 14), about 47 percent of the fuel powering their fleet of trucks nationwide came from “renewable sources.” Given the lack of biogas sources locally, it’s hard to believe that Seattle’s trucks are getting 100% biogas.

Methane gas vehicles aren’t clean, they still pollute

Regardless of whether Waste Management’s trucks are burning captured methane or conventional fracked methane, the tailpipe emissions are the same. And despite the perception that they’re good for air quality, methane gas-powered vehicles still produce significant levels of air pollution — just as bad as diesel trucks in some situations. 

Studies have shown that methane gas-powered engines can produce five to 50 times more ultrafine particles, which are linked to asthma, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, compared to diesel engines. A study of real-life conditions by the California Air Resources Board found that heavy duty natural gas-powered vehicles emitted asthma-causing nitrogen oxides (NOx) at higher levels than they were originally certified for, and that NOx emissions tended to increase as the vehicles aged – sometimes to levels higher than their diesel counterparts. The suggestion that Seattle residents are “breathing clean” around Waste Management’s methane gas-powered vehicles isn’t accurate, and Seattle residents shouldn’t be encouraged to breathe near them.

There’s better options: all-electric garbage trucks are here!

Seattle doesn’t need to look far for better, cleaner options for collecting garbage. King County recently rolled out a battery powered garbage truck, produced at Kenworth’s assembly plant in Renton. These trucks are powered by some of the cleanest electricity in the country and produce none of the kind of harmful air pollution that comes from methane gas-powered trucks.

Seattle shouldn’t allow free advertising for false climate solutions

Seattle’s current contract with Waste Management runs through 2028, but in the interim the city should demand accounting from Waste Management as to where it is sourcing any biogas it claims to be using. If the company is unable to prove that their trucks are running on substantial amounts of biogas, they should be forced to remove that statement from the sides of their trucks. 

As the world continues to transition from polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable electricity, it is critical that we reject corporate greenwashing tactics and false solutions such as biogas. Allowing garbage trucks to circle the city everyday echoing Chevron in advertising the concept of “renewable natural gas” as a climate solution misleads the public about the viability of biogas. The region has already said “No” to allowing fossil fuel ads on the sides of buses — it shouldn’t allow them on its garbage trucks.

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