Spotlight on the Unique Challenges of Waste Management for Airports

Spotlight on the Unique Challenges of Waste Management for Airports

Managing your own household waste can be challenging because it involves maintaining a separate bin for organic waste, keeping recyclables properly sorted, and disposing of hazardous waste correctly. Imagine what it must be like to be in charge of waste management and recycling at an airport.

These facilities are trying to find ways to sustainably handle the waste generated by the millions of passengers that pass through every year. This task is made even more complex by varying local regulations, tenant agreements, hauler contracts, myriad waste sources, and many other factors. Read on to learn about some of the unique challenges that airports face in dealing with waste.

  1. A wide variety of waste types.

airport recycle bins
Image by Frisno Boström

One of the factors that makes airport waste management exceptionally challenging is that there are so many different types of waste to deal with. A 2013 report from the Federal Aviation administration breaks airport waste down into an incredible eight different categories, each of which requires unique methods for proper handling and disposal. These categories include:

Municipal solid waste

Encompassing most everyday items that are used and then disposed of, municipal solid waste tends to be what we picture when we think of “trash.” In an airport setting, municipal solid waste largely consists of packaging materials from food and other products.

Construction and demolition waste

Given the work involved in maintaining an airport, to say nothing of improvements or upgrades, it’s not surprising to learn that construction and demolition waste can be a major component of an airport’s total waste generation. This waste category includes non-hazardous materials like concrete, wood, metals, and salvaged building components.

Green waste

Because they feature landscaped outdoor areas, airports must also contend with green waste, otherwise known as yard waste, which includes tree and grass clippings, weeds, and similar debris.

Food waste

Plenty of food production and consumption takes place at an airport. But while unconsumed food scraps and waste generated during food production activities were once part of the municipal solid waste stream, they are increasingly being handled separately as organic, or compostable, waste.

Deplaned waste

A category unique to airports, deplaned waste refers to the municipal solid waste that is removed from passenger aircraft. This may include paper waste, plastic service ware and cups, and compostable food material. At the average airport, this waste category can account for up to 20 percent of a facility’s total municipal solid waste.

Furthermore, in countries like the US, deplaned waste from international flights must be processed separately from domestic waste. This is done in order to avoid the introduction of harmful plant pests or diseases. Approved methods for handling international deplaned waste include sterilization, incineration to ash, or processing and discharge into an approved sewage system.

Lavatory waste

Another special waste category airports must manage is the waste that is generated when an airplane’s lavatory tanks are emptied. The waste is pumped through a hose into a lavatory service vehicle. It is then taken to a nearby facility, known as a triturator facility, for pretreatment. Finally, it is discharged into the municipal sanitary sewage system.

Spill cleanup and remediation wastes

This special waste category encompasses the waste materials generated when spills or other forms of contamination, such as vehicular leaks or spills from maintenance activities, are cleaned up onsite. These waste materials must be processed separately from other waste streams in a manner that complies with applicable local regulatory requirements.

Hazardous waste

Hazardous waste materials are commonplace in the aviation industry. These wastes include solvents, heavy metal paint waste, waste fuels, and nickel cadmium batteries. All of these materials must be handled, treated, and disposed of according to specific federal regulations.

  1. Working with numerous stakeholders.

In an airport environment, recycling and waste collection affects many different stakeholder groups. Each of these groups may be impacted differently by particular waste management methods. Another challenge that airports must confront, therefore, is the question of how to develop an optimal waste management strategy that considers and adapts to the various needs of all the distinct participating groups.

  1. Splintered or disorganized management chains.

Employee turnover is high in many airport settings. This makes it difficult for airports to achieve consistent compliance with their specified procedures around waste sorting and disposal. Continuous training and ongoing feedback are necessary to implement such a complex waste management strategy correctly, but are not always feasible.

  1. Insufficient space.

Space is at a premium in an airport setting, and waste collection may not be high on the list of priority uses for that space. This means that waste management programs are often forced to operate in an ad hoc way under less-than-ideal conditions.

  1. Airfield security.

Due to strict airport security measures, waste haulers and other contractors do not always have easy access to areas like ramps and loading dock. This complicates waste transportation away from the airport.

  1. Lease language.

Not all airport tenants will have specific language in their lease agreements setting forth guidelines and expectations for compliance with waste program practices. This can make it difficult for airports to enforce desired waste management behavior, which in turn can impede the successful implementation of an airport waste program.

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