How does a bin lorry work?

We’ll admit it – we’re all little kids at heart and we love working with our bin lorries. In fact, any six-year-old with express wonderment and curiosity when faced with one of these monsters of the road, and (cough) many years later the huge majority of us are none the wiser – how exactly does a bin lorry work?

First, we’ll assume some prior knowledge of lorries, so we don’t have to explain anything to do with the front end. A truck’s a truck, except ours come with a stuffed toy fixed to the radiator grille (and contrary to popular belief, they love it. We’ve never met a stuffed toy who didn’t want to see out their days riding round town on a bin lorry).

Most bin lorries in the UK work to the same basic principle – the bins are lifted and unloaded into a hopper by hydraulic means (although some of us in this office are old enough to remember when teams of bin men did this by muscle power alone), the hopper is cleared into the body of the truck, and the waste is compacted. At the end of the lorry’s round, the compacting process is reversed, and the lorry empties itself at the recycling plant of landfill site.

The loading process is straightforward, but a triumph of technology. The bins are loaded onto the hydraulic arm, lifted, and gravity does the trick over the hopper. But there are little tricks involved, allowing lids to flip harmlessly out of the way, and a cunning use of Newton’s First Law that keeps the rubbish moving when the bin suddenly stops against the lift’s limits.

When the hopper’s full the operator activates the compacting blade, which forces the waste into the body of the beast. Once inside, hydraulic cylinders keep compacting the waste up one end of the body, meaning that a lorry can carry extraordinary volumes of waste, meaning they can stay out on the road far longer than machines from pre-hydraulic days.

At the end of the round, more hydraulics lift up the hopper part of the truck, exposing the body. Then, the compacting process is reversed and the truck is unloaded.

That’s a basic overview of the workings of a bin lorry. Some work differently, with models that load up from the side – allowing operators to work their way along a street more efficiently; while lorries that empty larger wheeled bins – what our American friends might call a dumpster – will load from the front, straight into the body of the truck from the top.

However, they all work to the same end – removing domestic and business waste efficiently and safely. Very much one of our society’s less heralded yet vital inventions.

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