When you think about it, airports are like cities—cities with shops, restaurants, and millions of transient residents who come and go every day, leaving behind enormous amounts of food waste, wrappers and packaging, used paper towels, and the like.
Airports also must contend with waste generated by maintenance and cargo hangars, construction projects, landscaping operations, and office buildings, as well as all the trash produced by passengers and crew on each flight. And while waste from domestic US flights can be placed in an airport’s garbage and recycling bins like other trash at the airport, waste from international flights is a different matter.
According to federal law, this waste must be handled separately to reduce the risk of transmitting agricultural pests or diseases. The USDA mandates that waste from international flights be taken to an approved facility, where it must be incinerated, ground up and discharged into a sewage system, or sanitized in an autoclave before disposal in a landfill. With these multiple types of waste, waste management at an airport is a complicated task that requires careful organization.
Recently, the Airports Council International – North America conducted a survey of the waste, recycling, and other sustainability practices at 56 airports. The results indicated that 95 percent of these airports have a program to reduce, reuse, or recycle materials, and more than 30 percent have a composting program.
Here’s a look at how three major airports in the US are managing waste.
Austin–Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)
Serving Texas’ capital city, AUS had 5.8 million passenger boardings in 2015 and also employed more than 3,000 people. Over the past year, the airport was able to double its waste diversion rate (the amount of waste it diverts from landfills). Airport management accomplished this feat by increasing the number of trash and recycling receptacles in the terminal, and by starting a “Blue Bag” program for staff. Employees learned to place their recyclables in these blue bags, which help ensure that the materials are accurately identified as recyclables and properly transported off-site to the waste hauler’s recycling facility.
In addition, AUS’ waste hauler helped the airport assess the effectiveness of its waste and recycling programs by weighing the collected materials and communicating the data to the airport.
AUS is also working to kick-start a food waste composting program, which involves working with tenants (like shops and restaurants) to inform them of the plan and how they can participate. Another challenge is determining how to transport food waste to a central collection point so the waste hauler can transport it off-site. An unused food donation plan is also in consideration as well—such programs are increasingly popular at airports across the US.
Denver International Airport (DEN)
One of the busiest airports in the United States and the entire world, DEN saw 26.3 million passenger boardings in 2015 and employed an astonishing 35,000 people. The airport has a significant waste management goal: it plans to become a zero-waste facility by 2020. Already DEN has made some progress toward this objective. Over the past 15 years, for example, the airport has decreased its per-passenger waste from 0.64 pounds of waste in 2001, to 0.42 pounds per person in 2011. The airport also collected 1,571 tons of recyclables that same year, as well as 26,000 pounds of electronics, more than 100,000 tons of concrete, and thousands of gallons of used oil, antifreeze, and solvent.
Notably, DEN has launched a composting program to divert used paper towels from landfills. In 2011, this waste amounted to more than 5 tons per month. The waste is hauled off-site to a commercial composting facility that produces compost for residential households and agricultural operations.
Tackling food waste is another component of DEN’s waste management efforts. In addition to composting paper towels, the airport also operates a back-of-house food scrap compost program and an office waste compost program. A food donation program enables flight kitchens and food concessions to give unused food to a hunger relief organization.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
SEA is the largest airport in the Pacific Northwest, with 20.1 million passenger boardings in 2015. The airport has been composting since 2007, sending 450 tons of food waste to an off-site composting facility each year. Like DEN, SEA also operates a food donation program in concert with a local food bank. In 2015 restaurants and other concessions at the airport donated over 44,000 pounds of food. Another waste reduction effort related to food service is a limitation on the types of cutlery, plates, and cups that eateries may provide. Only compostable, recyclable, or durable materials are allowed.
The airport also installed new collection receptacles in the food court area, along with tabletop decals and other signage. The goal is to encourage people to think before they toss all their waste in the same bin, and instead separate their recyclables, compostables, and landfill trash.