From Time to Time, You will Hear of a solid waste company converting its fleet to the use of alternative fuels. In late September, Allied Waste Industries' subsidiary in San Mateo County, Calif., became the latest to make such news, announcing that its 225-truck fleet will use B20, a blended fuel that consists of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel. By January, the entire fleet should be running on the fuel, the company says.

Allied estimates that the fleet's use of B20 will reduce local carbon emissions by roughly 3.3 million pounds each year, which it says is the equivalent of taking 315 cars off San Mateo roadways.

“We're doing our part locally to fight climate change by transforming our entire San Mateo County fleet to biodiesel as quickly as fuel supplies allow,” said John Zillmer, president and CEO of Phoenix-based Allied, in a prepared statement.

Allied isn't alone. Earlier this spring, for example, Norcal Waste Systems announced that its vehicle fleet serving the San Francisco market will exclusively use alternative fuels, either liquefied natural gas or B20. And, over the years, Waste Management has replaced about 500 diesel-running vehicles with trucks that run on natural gas.

So, is the industry on the brink of an alternative-fuel revolution? Not so fast.

According to Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association, while the obvious benefits of alternative fuels are less greenhouse gas emissions and a decreased dependence on fossil fuels, there are trade-offs — such as reduced fuel efficiency, less vehicle torque and large-scale availability.

“You don't want to jump into this or that because it sounds good,” Parker says. “Our industry has to balance what's good for the environment and what's good for ensuring that solid waste collection and disposal is as effective as possible.”

And, at this point, waste fleet managers are more focused on complying with EPA's upcoming 2010 diesel engine standards that will mandate reductions in nitrogen oxide and non-methane hydrocarbons, Parker says. He predicts that in the near future, the use of alternative fuels will be driven primarily by state and local regulations, such as those in California, although some firms, such as IESI in Texas, voluntarily use the fuels on a selective basis. As for how widespread such fuels ultimately become in the industry, “that remains to be seen,” he says.

The use of alternative fuels in solid waste operations is a complex issue. However, firms owe it to their communities to explore the issue as aggressively as possible. The industry has protected our environment for many years. It's time to see if it can help do so in yet another way.

The author is the editor of Waste Age