Supermarket food trucks to be powered by sewage and dung

They are the kings of the road and their reign is not going to end any time soon. Almost all of Scotland’s food arrives in supermarkets on the back of giant trucks that slog up the slow lanes of the M6 and M74. They fuel us.

But who fuels them?  And can 44-tonne artics ever really be green-powered?  Peter Eaton thinks so.

His business already tanks up lorries in England with compressed biogas made from food slops, cow dung and – hold your noses as you read – sewage sludge.   That means some of the food we eat will be transported using the energy left over in the food we throw away – or the food we have already eaten. Mr Eaton and his firm, CNG Fuels, is now aiming to open its first two filling stations in Scotland, both in Lanarkshire, the nation’s transportation hub.

His clients include supermarkets such as Waitrose and Asda, as well as parcel delivery giant Hermes.  He said: “It could be decades before there are electric batteries strong enough for big trucks. Our fuel reduces the carbon footprint of a truck by more than 80 per cent.”

CNG Fuels has planning permission for one site, at Bellshill, and applied for another, in Larkhall, just off the M74. The stations are big – the Larkhall planning application predicts 160 trucks will be filled up a day. Its fuel does not smell of what it is made from.

It is methane of the kind generated by anaerobic digestion (AD) plants up and down the UK. But because it is recycled 
it does not count towards the carbon footprint of those who use it. Mr Eaton explained the stations are designed to let lorries top up their tanks after the long haul from Lancashire – or before they make the trip back down. 

There are no facilities of this kind in Scotland. Subject to planning permission, CNG Fuels aims to put more in place. Most transport experts think Scotland and the rest of the UK is on the cusp of an electric car revolution.

The technology is also expected to spread to vans.  Heavy trucks, however, present a bigger difficulty. Forty-four-tonne delivery lorries are hard to power with a battery.

So are heavy bin collection vehicles. Some manufacturing operators are looking at hydrogen. Others at biogas.

Richard Dixon, of Friends Of The Earth Scotland, welcomed the move, as a stop-gap. “Using biomethane from anaerobic digestions is a good option, making constructive use of some of the huge amount of food we waste every year,” he said. “Although we should be moving as much as possible by rail freight, where we really do need a lorry to do a journey then running on biomethane is better than running on diesel, for both climate and local air pollution.
“This may just be a temporary solution though, with electric trucks being the cleanest option in future.” Even critics acknowledge food trucks are here to stay.

Motor manufacturer Daf has listed some of the facts about lorries moving food. Trucks, it said, carry 900 million tonnes of food a billion kilometres a year in the UK alone. That accounts for two-thirds of road freight, and 98% of food shipments.

Pete Ritchie, of sustainable food campaign group Nourish Scotland, wants to reduce those figures.  “There is an old saying about Scotland,” he said. “We grow potatoes and we buy crisps. We should be doing much more food manufacturing in Scotland rather than just producing raw materials.

“We should be looking, for example, to see more glasshouses producing vegetables, rather than, say, importing tomatoes from Spain.”  For Mr Ritchie, trucking tomatoes just means moving water in lorries from the south of Europe to the north. Other northern countries, including Russia, the Netherlands, Iceland and Sweden have developed systems of winter glasshouse vegetables. 

The Herald understands there have been business plans in Scotland to use biogas to heat greenhouses. Some environmentalists, however, fear the biogas industry creates a perverse incentive not to cut back on waste.  Others argue nutrients in food waste are being wasted by AD or even incineration.

Scotland, for example, still burns sewage sludge, the brown residue left after wastewater treatment.
CNG Fuels does not make biogas.

It buys it from manufacturers that are also supplying the product to the national grid.