Choked up between the environment and austerity

Published:  18 November, 2015

PREVIEW OF LAPV DECEMBER:After the introduction of the Euro VI legislation, compact sweepers were declassified as specialist off-road vehicles. This has opened up the market and given councils greater choice because the off-road Stage IIIb engine does not require an expensive exhaust emissions system and is consequently cheaper. So does this compromise the environment? Jemma Dempsey reports.

Studies about air pollution in this populous country always make for gloomy reading and that was certainly the case with a report released this summer. Researchers at the respected Kings College, London found the death toll from long term exposure to air pollution was twice as high as previously thought, with almost 10,000 people a year dying early. Two pollutants are to blame, fine particulates known as PM2.5s and, included for the first time, the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a gas created by diesel cars, lorries and buses.

But the capital isn't alone: Leeds and Birmingham among others, have failed to provide their inhabitants with clean air. This breach was the subject of a Supreme Court hearing in April, which ruled that the government must publish a clean-up plan by the end of the year. Add to this the findings of a 2011 study showing that diesel-related health problems cost the NHS more than 10 times as much as petrol fumes, and it paints a worrying picture.

The dilemma

For local authorities, this presents a problem as most publicly owned vehicles run on diesel. While electric buses are becoming more common, many more still use diesel. And ask any council what its taxpayers think is the most important service and many will say street cleansing – indeed a 2013 survey by Aberdeen City Council found 56% of respondents citing it as extremely important.

So what is the solution?

The days of men with brooms pounding the pavements are long gone. Now small, mechanised, compact road sweepers hum along our streets and precincts, their brushes whirring away the debris of modern living. Most of the public wouldn't give these machines a second thought but they are a critical part of a council's street cleaning arsenal.

All change

Now the emissions regime for these vehicles has changed. Around the same time as the introduction of the new EU legislation for Euro VI on-highway engine emissions, compact road sweepers were declassified to be categorised as specialist off-road vehicles. This has opened up the market and given councils greater choice on how to spend their budget.

Toxic gases

Buy a compact road sweeper with an engine under 56kW and it is not subject to such stringent regulations. According to Johnston, one of the leading sweeper manufacturers in the UK, these changes can be easily summarised by saying the off-road Stage IIIB engine is cheaper because it does not require such an expensive exhaust system. Savings can be significant, between 5% and 10% of the capital cost of the vehicle. So far, so good. But the down side is that the off-road engine produces more harmful exhaust emissions, especially NO2 gases and hydrocarbons that contribute to poor air quality. So what, at first glance, may seem like an exercise in managing budgets is more complicated. And the decision to be made is should councils go green or choose the cheaper, austerity-friendly option?The difference in the emissions levels is staggering: the Stage IIIB engine produces up to 87% more toxic gases than the Euro VI.

The rules

The gnarly issue of combatting air pollution is laid down in law. The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) says: ‘European legislation sets legally binding limit values for concentrations of certain pollutants including PM10 and NO2 that must not be exceededLocal authorities are responsible for reviewing and assessing air quality under the Local Air Quality Management system and may choose to undertake more local modeling as part of assessing the need for local measures.'

Westminster

Those targets are embodied in every local authority's environmental objectives with talk of 'minimising carbon impact' and 'reducing air pollution' widespread. But one city council that is demonstrably taking it very seriously is Westminster. Its eight square miles are home to 240,000 people and that swells by more than a million each day with commuters and tourists. It has around 25 compact road sweepers working three different shifts and has just taken delivery of 14 Johnston C201 Euro VI machines.

Westminster's waste service manager Jarno Stet says making the decision to use the more expensive Euro VI model was simple. ‘We've got challenges not faced by anyone else in the UK. We've got the highest use of public space, combined with the highest traffic and pollution levels in the UK and, as such, we've got very strict standards and want our equipment to perform as best it can. But we also want to do something about the air pollution so all the particulate matter as well as the nitrogen dioxide is captured. We actively want to do our bit as the council.'

Westminster's annual street cleansing budget sits just below £20 million and it needs reliable machines that can work round the clock, 365 days a year. But what about the price tag? While a one-off saving of 5-10% might not sound like much, multiply that by 14 machines and it's getting into the tens of thousands, a sum not to be sniffed at by cash-strapped fleet managers.

Stet says there's more to it than the initial purchase price: ‘There's the cost over its lifetime ... how often do things have to be replaced, what's the fuel cost, what's its range of operation? All those things have to be looked at.'

Jarno Stet is Westminsters waste service manager.

Looking after the pennies

But while Westminster has gone down the Euro VI route, other councils have decided to go with the cheaper option, mindful of the cost savings. Nottingham City Council has just taken delivery of three Scarab Azuras. The Euro V/Stage IIIB engine doesn't capture the particulate matter like the Euro VI model but Scarab argues that doesn't make the model less eco friendly.

UK sales manager Paul Mannering says in servicing costs the Stage IIIB comes out better: ‘It has to be serviced every 500 hours but for the Euro VI, because it's more complex and needs its filters changing more often, it's every 300 hours. That means the engine oil needs changing more often. So, while what comes out of the exhaust of a Euro VI might be cleaner, it produces more contaminated waste which needs to be disposed of.'

Servicing costs aside Mannering reckons the Stage IIIB option will outlive its competitor. ‘It's our belief that the complexity of the Euro VI engine means it will have a shorter life span, so it will have to be replaced more frequently.'

In Scarab's eyes the Stage IIIB engine is easier to service, more reliable and, if well maintained, significantly cleaner than others.

But, for Johnston, the Euro VI's environmental pedigree makes it superior, especially in the city where councils are under a lot of pressure to improve air quality.

UK sales and marketing manager Graham Howlett says that this discussion about NO2 and fine particulates that are so harmful to us, will become a big part of the conversation, along with other elements, such as fuel consumption, budget savings, carbon footprint and exhaust emissions and where the balance lies could depend on the size of the fleet.

Air quality vs cost

'The larger fleets tend to be in the larger cities where there is this debate between air quality requirements, which they're targeted to achieve, and the financial cost difference between the two options. So the gaps can be considerable, but then if you're not meeting your air quality targets the financial penalties can be quite considerable as well.'

So how do councils weigh up the competing issues of austerity versus environment? Westminster says it looks at long-term results; the Euro VI saves on fuel and, as they're high performing machines they're more efficient. Then there's the breakdown time, Jarno Stet notes: ‘We can't afford machines breaking down, there's too much at stake to keep our streets clean. Other local authorities may be able to say, when a machine breaks down 'we'll do the work tomorrow or when the machine's available' but that's not an option for us.'

Dieselgate

This is all well and good but in the light of the emissions scandal with VW and dieselgate, is any of this emission data worth the paper it's written on? Emissions Analytics is a UK-based company that tries to keep the vehicle industry honest. It says the testing regime for off-road machines is more harmonised internationally than passenger car regulations because the likes of JCB sell globally and have been pushing for a more level playing field. Plus the way these machines are tested is more rigorous and regulated on the basis of grammes per unit of work done, as opposed to passenger vehicles use grammes per kilometre travelled. All of which means the figures are harder to manipulate. In turn, that would appear to indicate that money spent on a Euro VI model isn't a waste.

The rental option

Many local authorities don't have to make this decision. They outsource their street cleansing operations or hire road sweepers from the likes of the Dawson Group. The nationwide rental business is proud of its commitment to the Euro VI CX201 from Johnston and says trials of the new low-emission sweeper helped it decide where to spend its money. Operations manager Paul Brewer wanted to assess the new exhaust system and power of the machine and was impressed with the results. He said: ‘The machines have been out on test with two local authorities and prompted very favourable feedback. The extra length has had no impact on the manoeuvrability and our customers were impressed with the changes.'

Hobson's Choice

So, with financial cut-backs high on the agenda it is hard for local authorities not to look at the bottom line. But with the government on a deadline to improve air quality and satisfy not only the courts in Europe but also health watchdogs around the country, councils soon may find they have little choice than to put the environment first.

@Shutterstock

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