Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

IDEA WATCH

David and The Upcycled Garbage Truck

David Beckham’s $500,000 electric Jaguar conversion could unleash a carbon-free Goliath—the kind that picks up your trash

By Julie Halpert

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

When soccer lengend David Beckham wanted a wedding present for his son Brooklyn, he turned to Lunaz, an upcycling company based next to the Formula 1 racetrack in Silverstone, UK. For an undisclosed amount, Beckham bought an electrified vintage Jaguar XK140, lovingly upgraded with battery power, ripping acceleration, and interior Wi-Fi. 

The conversion involved a team of 120 people, thousands of hours’ work, and a likely price-tag of around half a million dollars. Lunaz, in which Beckham holds a 10% stake, also offers luscious electric conversions of classic vehicles from Range Rovers ($370,000) to Aston Martins (well over $1 million). 

So far, so niche. 

Converting every CO2-spewing hatchback and minivan in the world into a fully electric vehicle will never be an economic proposition, and a few luxury runabouts won’t make a dent in the seven gigatons of carbon that road vehicles emit each year. 

What makes Lunaz really interesting is its latest conversion project: a fleet of refurbished garbage trucks upgraded from highly polluting diesel to clean green electricity.

Diesel vehicles account for over a quarter of America’s transportation emissions and about 10% of its entire energy-related carbon footprint. Switching the planet’s countless recycling trucks, construction vehicles and semis to battery power could have a real impact—and does make financial sense, insists David Lorenz, Lunaz’s founder and CEO. 

“It’s a complete win/win to upcycle to save money, to save resources, and to accelerate this transition” to electric vehicles, he says.

The challenge Lorenz faces now is building enough tricked-out electric sports cars for the 1%, to fund the dirty business of upcycling garbage trucks for the rest of humanity.

 

Editor’s note: After this article was published, Lunaz ceased operations and the division of the company that was modifying garbage trucks entered administration, a similar process to Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. The company has issued a statement that it ultimately intends to restart under a new structure.

Too Much Gas, Too Little Time.

Electric vehicles (EVs) account for only around 2.5% of private cars on the road, and a vanishingly small fraction of heavy vehicles. If the world banned new gas and diesel cars tomorrow, hundreds of millions of legacy vehicles will continue to pump out gigatons of carbon dioxide for decades to come. 

The UN recognized this problem in 2020, pointing out that rich nations were exporting 14 million older vehicles a year, the vast majority to developing nations. “Because this largely happens unregulated, this has become the export of polluting vehicles,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UN Environment Program.

But what if they were retro-fitted to run on clean electricity instead?

The idea of converting existing vehicles to run on batteries isn’t new. In 2017, Mark Wagner finally succumbed to his dream of owning a classic Volkswagen Beetle. The 1962 Beetle looked fantastic with a ragtop in pearl white and a red interior. But it was loud and belched smoke. “I used to feel bad about driving it past a jogger,” he says. 

So Wagner, who lives in Irvine, California, took his Beetle to EV West, a company in nearby San Marcos that turns internal combustion cars into EVs. He paid $30,000 on top of the car’s $15,000 purchase price and two years later took delivery of the finished vehicle. It was worth the wait, he says: “It’s clean. It’s quiet. It’s fast. And it requires almost no maintenance.”

Unlike more speculative climate technologies, converting gas vehicles to EVs is not only possible but well within the capabilities of many commercial garages and even enthusiasts. It involves removing the internal combustion engine and (usually) transmission, modifying other components to work with a new electric motor, and installing a large battery. The final cars, proponents say, require almost no maintenance and far fewer repairs than the originals. 

Older, classic cars are generally the best targets for conversions because they have simpler systems which are easier to replace. They also tend to be less fuel efficient than newer models. But the whole process is still both labor- and time-intensive, says David Benardo, CEO and co-founder of Zelectric Motors in San Diego, California.

“We’re not doing this to save money at the pump or save money in general because it’s much cheaper to go out and buy a Tesla than an old car,” says Benardo, “People are doing this because they are absolutely crazy about these classic cars, and they want to spend more time driving them.”

Benardo, like all the conversion specialists Anthropocene spoke with, has a large backlog of conversion orders. Even with conversion prices starting at $98,000, Zelectric’s waitlist is over two years’ long. 

Conversion companies believe that prices will come down as more companies get involved, and businesses target more mainstream vehicles. Big car makers like Ford and GM are already offering aftermarket components for EV conversions to custom shops and DIYers.

But the process isn’t without its challenges. Anna Stefanopoulou, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, says the heavier batteries will stress a car’s suspension, brakes and tires. Convertors need to either reduce weight in other parts of the vehicle or use different tires. To do this correctly and safely “is not easy and it’s not cheap to do it right.” 

Lunaz weighs and measures each car minutely to design a safe and efficient battery electric system for it. Each model has different requirements, enabling Lunaz to develop expertise at building custom battery, engine and electronic set-ups. 

It’s that expertise Lunaz is now deploying in its race to clean up garbage trucks.

 

Reborn garbage trucks are fitted with a powerful electric motor and a battery pack of up to 400 kWh—over three times the energy of a Tesla Cybertruck.

converting diesel-powered garbage trucks to electric vehicles
converting diesel-powered garbage trucks to electric vehicles

Disrupting Diesel.

Zero-emission electric garbage trucks are quiet, use almost no electricity when stationary, don’t need hundreds of miles of range, and can charge slowly overnight. But with new models carrying a price-tag of around $700,000, upgrading a city’s fleet to battery power is an eye-watering prospect. 

Enter Lunaz. Whether it’s a lovingly preserved Rolls Royce or a smelly old garbage truck, each vehicle arriving at Lunaz gets stripped down to the bare metal and checked for structural issues. 

Trucks are then fitted with a powerful electric motor and a battery pack ranging from 275 to 400 kWh—the latter packing over three times the energy of a Tesla Cybertruck. 

The truck’s plastic parts are either repaired and recoated or recycled, and electrical components updated. Cameras and monitors replace the wing mirrors, and old-school dashboard dials give way to a trio of screens. The upcycled trucks even get Apple Car Play (“operatives very much like to listen to music,” says Lorenz.). 

Lunaz already has some trucks out collecting waste daily in the U.K., and will be rolling them out in the U.S. this year. The conversion process currently takes 20 days per truck, with Lunaz aiming to get that down to 11 days when they hit full production speed in 2026.

At nearly half a million dollars each, the trucks are hundreds of thousands cheaper than new all-electric rivals but still about 60% more than new diesel trucks. However, Lorenz points out that his vehicles will end up tens of thousands of dollars cheaper over their seven-year lives by saving on diesel and maintenance. 

On top of the avoided emissions, Lunaz says it also saves more than 80% of the embedded carbon by remanufacturing a refuse truck. That means its factory should preserve the weight of the Eiffel Tower in carbon every year.

“Lunaz stops the practice of carbon postboxing where polluting diesels are exported to markets with less stringent air quality legislation, effectively transporting rather than eliminating emissions,” says Lorenz. “An opportunity like this demands great ambition to globally scale.”

Britain’s largest sustainable waste management company, Biffa, announced last September that it was contracting with Lunaz to convert 10 of its diesel refuse trucks to electric vehicles as part of the company’s commitment to decarbonizing its fleet. “This agreement represents a key milestone for Biffa highlighting progress towards our sustainability and decarbonization goals,” Maxine Mahew, COO of Biffa’s Collection & Specialist Services, said in a statement.

“Refuse trucks and passenger vehicles are just the start,” says Lorenz. “We have built an entirely modular electric powertrain and systemised up-cycling approach that can be applied at scale to every possible vehicle class.”

Lunaz trucks are already collecting waste in the U.K. Lunaz aims to shorten the conversion process from 20 days per truck today to 11 days by 2026.

recycled EV garbage truck

Accelerating the Transition.

But if the finish line is carbon-free transportation, upcycling has competition. André Boehman, another mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said it would be easier and more effective to reduce carbon emissions by transitioning existing garbage trucks to other fuels. “There’s a guaranteed reduction in carbon intensity by running them on biodiesel or renewable diesel and you don’t have to monkey with the vehicle,” he said. 

However, biofuels and renewable fuels are likely to be in heavy demand in the years ahead, for passenger cars and planes that are either too expensive or unrealistic to electrify.

In fact, not only would monkeying with garbage trucks help cities hit their climate targets, it could also set the stage for upcycled dump trucks, construction vehicles and semis that were headed to the wrecking yard.

And there are signs that conversion momentum is building, with Renault recently upcycling one of its 12-ton diesel trucks to electricity, after refurbishing hundreds of used gas vehicles. 

Lorenz wants to take that to the next level, promising Lunaz upcycling facilities in the global market, starting with Europe and the US. “I believe that every vehicle should have at least two lives,” he says. 

_____________

Julie Halpert is a freelance journalist based in Michigan. She has written for many national publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Photos courtesy of Lunaz.
What to Read Next

 

Anthropocene Magazine Logo

Get the latest sustainability science delivered to your inbox every week

Newsletters

You have successfully signed up

Share This

Share This Article