What Does it Take to be a Berliner? : IN DEPTH: Electrifying Waste Collection in Berlin

berlin waste rcv collection truck bsr malcolm bates

You don’t really need me to tell you that Berlin is a city of considerable historic significance. And then some. That’s cultural significance something that is often overlooked.

Architectural significance – there is much more to the city that the famous Brandenburg Gate. Political significance? That’s something that is always there, to both haunt and at the same time, fascinate visitors. But what about social significance? Before 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, Berlin was, in effect, two cities with the same name – East and West. West Berlin was an island within a communist state that had ‘democratic’ in its title, but was in fact anything but.

Today? The city is buzzing with colour and energy. Sure, some urban wastelands of the Communist era can still be spotted from the window of a U-Bahn train, but since I arrived in the suburb of Tempelhof famous as the location of the airport that played a vital role in the Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s – I’ve spent a relaxed evening walking around the neighbourhood, checking out the atmosphere and how to get to the offices of BSR – Berliner Stadtreinigung – in the morning.

Next day, I’m up early to get some photographs of BSR waste collection, recycling and street cleansing vehicles at work, before my meeting with Dr. Thomas Klöckner, press speaker and Kai Groth, number two in the fleet management department. The meeting is at one of fifteen repair and maintenance depots of BSR.

This one is located alongside the busy Ringbahn that encircles the city. Why am I here? Good question. There are two answers. Sure, I’ve been to Berlin several times – once, just a couple of years after the wall came down. But I’ve never had time to check out how the place ‘worked’.


With a population of 3.5 million, Berlin has increasingly become a ‘must see’ city on the European weekend break circuit, as well as a stop-over on any major European tour. Not only for all the reasons we were talking about just now, but because... Well, as major cities go, it is a remarkably nice place to visit. The fact that it’s not too large, or overcrowded (I’m thinking London and Paris here) is a real positive both for visitors and residents.

Is the fact that one organisation – BSR – is responsible for keeping the entire city clean and tidy (rather than, as is the case in some major cities, having services split between a number of commercial contractors), a reason why Berlin is so attractive?

That question certainly involves ‘politics’, but if we base the answer on results and the ability to match a service to meet the needs of the city, it has to be said, the City-owned BSR organisation seems to be doing a pretty good job. So in that context, what BSR purchases – or doesn’t purchase – will be of interest to every other city in the world. So that’s one reason for my visit.

The second? Well, if the first answer relates to ‘today’ then the second relates to ‘tomorrow’. It could be argued that only a directly-responsible organisation can take a long-term view when it comes to making the change over to an alternative fuel source.

After all, commercial contractors will have no incentive to change over to gas, hydrogen fuel – or the big one, lithium-ion battery power – when the cost is significantly greater than that of a replacement fleet of diesel vehicles. On top of any added ‘investment’ question, there’s also the issue of a difficult-to-determine penalty in terms of higher depreciation and lower residual values.

BSR is directly responsible – although I guess the word ‘answerable’ is a better word – to its major shareholder, the City Council.

It has a city-wide brief. It operates both waste and recyclables collection RCVs, highway and precinct vacuum sweepers. It has real purchasing power. So the management team at BSR has the resources to implement a long-term policy regarding reduced and zero-emissions vehicles and plant then? Well, I hope so. Because that’s what I’m hoping to discuss with Dr. Thomas Klöckner and Kai Groth in the morning.


I’ve already been making notes for a while now, stopping only for a drink of much-needed coffee. We’re in the amazingly stylish in-house ‘coffee shop’ at the BSR Ringstrasse HQ.

Thomas Klöckner is firing-off statistics like they’re going out of fashion... BSR has 320 three-axle 26 tonne gross weight RCVs, 130 compact precinct sweepers and 70 truck-mounted vacuum sweepers... BSR has long-since standardised on automatic gearboxes, with the RCV fleet now one hundred percent Allison automatic.

The organisation employs over 5,400 staff in total and already operates an impressive 165 RCVs that are fuelled by CNG – biogas generated from waste. That is 50% of the fleet. And thanks to something like 75,000 tonnes of organic waste being collected separately in Berlin each year, there is clearly potential to increase that percentage in future.

Out of the four main depots that house the BSR fleet, three are already equipped with fast-action CNG fuel pumps. This sits well with a pledge made by the City of Berlin Council, to reduce CO2 emissions and improve air quality as an on-going mission. Nothing unusual in that? Maybe not, but Thomas tells me that as things stand, unlike many other global destination cities that are in breach of their own ‘Clean Air’ limits, the improvements to air quality in Berlin are positive and currently ahead of target.

No pressure then? No need to implement any more drastic – and expensive – measures anytime soon? Well actually, I’m here in the BSR coffee shop with Thomas and Kai to find out how BSR intends to face the future. And from a meeting I’ve already had with Thomas at IFAT earlier this year, I already know that doing ‘as little as possible’, isn’t the Berliner way. “As far as our next generation of waste and recycling collection vehicles are concerned, we are currently looking at all the options,” Thomas explains.

“There are a number of issues that we need to resolve. As things stand, we don’t expect that one single solution will meet the needs of our city. There are certain conditions and restrictions that apply here in Berlin that differ from other cities in Germany, let alone elsewhere. For example we would like to operate higher capacity vacuum sweepers on many of our footpaths (sidewalks), but are unable to do so because of regulations. That limits us to machines of 3500 kg gross weight. This will have an impact on any design that is fuelled by natural gas, or lithium-ion batteries. And it would result in us having to accept reduced payloads, for example,” he continues.

It’s a similar story with RCVs, he tells me. Although electric RCVs will be allowed an extra tonne of gross weight (taking them up to 27 tonnes on three axles within the EU) to cover the added weight of batteries, they must be able to carry the same, or better payload (of between ten and eleven tonnes, typically) over relatively long distances in Berlin. Why? Because the waste is unloaded at a few specific RDF facilities outside the central zone, rather than at waste transfer sites situated around the city.

“This means that any zero-emissions RCV must have enough battery power to get from the inner zones out to the tipping site at least twice per shift and also have enough power in reserve to offset hold-ups due to busy traffic,” Kai Groth adds. And that could be a problem, he thinks.


The team at BSR has clearly been looking at all the implications in detail – the detail you would expect from Germany’s number one city. The suggestion that an all-electric RCV could start earlier in the morning is a mixed blessing, I’m told.

Crews already start at 6 am, but in many downtown areas, the waste containers need to be wheeled-out from courtyards to the kerbside and the noise that generates will not be reduced by a zero-emissions electric RCV, Thomas Klöckner explains. Also, in some parts of the city, Berlin has its own unique design of communal waste container – many of which are located underground.

There is no commercially-produced system currently available to unload them that would be compatible with an electric RCV chassis. And although BSR already successfully operates a fleet of zero-emissions electric cars – including Volkswagen Golfs and Nissan Leafs – Kai Groth says he is yet to be convinced about the various claims and suggestions that electric RCVs should be able to make significant savings in repair and maintenance costs. “They would certainly have to,” he suggests.

So just how long should a new generation RCV be expected to last in service? With conventional diesel vehicles, the figure might vary between eight and ten years – maybe twelve. The argument for replacing diesel vehicles more often being that new units meeting the latest emissions regulations are ‘cleaner’ than previous generations. Gasfuelled vehicles present a different problem.

While their emissions are lower, they are more expensive and their residual values are lower as, unlike diesel units, there is no second-hand market for gas vehicles. Nor is there a rental option to cover any unforeseen downtime on existing units – partly due to difficulties in delivering them to rental customers due to a lack of refuelling infrastructure.

The flipside is they should last longer. “We aim to get around 12 to 14 years work out of a gas-fuelled RCV,” Kai explains, “But we would expect to rebuild, or replace the body and hopper once during that time and that situation is unlikely to be significantly different on an electrically-powered chassis,” he adds.


So how long would a new zero-emissions lithium-ion battery-powered RCV have to last in order to be cost-effective, then? Brian Olesen from PVI distributor for Denmark, Scandinavia and northern Europe – Phoenix Danmark – suggests that seven years is the break-even point that then puts electric RCVs on an equal footing with diesel units. After that, the electric unit should in theory be saving money. But the next big question is, how long will the battery packs last? “This is what we are intending to find out for ourselves, first hand,” Kai replies.

“It may well be that in future, our fleet will be mainly made-up of conventional CNG-fuelled vehicles, with a number of lithium-ion battery-powered units for working in the inner zone, or around locations where emissions have to be kept especially low,” he explains. “Remember, here in Berlin we already produce biogas from waste and that counts as a CO2 neutral,” Klöckner adds.

As I was able to see for myself, the gas-fuelled Mercedes Econic RCVs with Haller compaction equipment and Allison auto boxes are refuelled after every shift. But this is done at multiple pump locations at each depot as soon as the shift is finished,

so disruption is minimalised. As far as electric RCVs are concerned? Kai Groth is interested in the results already reported in ‘Collection & Handling’ regarding the PVI units already working in Copenhagen. “Having a choice of battery pack output now enables us to make a useful working evaluation,” Groth explains.

“But we need to conduct trials over an extended period to evaluate battery pack performance in all weather conditions,” he adds. To that end, a new 6x2 PVI is due to go on trial with BSR in Berlin early in 2019. How it performs is sure to have a major effect on what the next generations of RCVs operated in Berlin will look like in the coming decade.