Airports face holiday travel rush and resulting waste

Departments - Waste Watch

December 6, 2021

With the holiday season upon us, AAA is projecting a busy travel year “near pre-pandemic levels” as families take to the roads and skies to reconnect with loved ones across the country. As airports and their partners prepare to accommodate passengers, many are still bringing services and programs back online that were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes recycling, food donation and other waste diversion programs.

As noted in a 2018 Waste Today article written by my colleague, Christopher A. Lund, managing the waste generated at an airport is both a major challenge and an opportunity. As airport activity fluctuates, so does the volume of waste generated by passengers, concessions, retail, airlines and airport operations. By one estimate, there is one pound of waste generated by each passenger that passes through an airport. Prior to the pandemic, the country’s airports were implementing and perfecting creative strategies to divert this waste, which equates to hundreds of tons per day, from the landfill.

With reductions in passenger levels, staffing and partner activity, airports had fewer resources to manage a lower volume of material and had to adjust operations accordingly last year. This year, all stakeholders will play an important role in helping return the industry to strong waste diversion practices, especially during the holiday rush.

This holiday season, the country’s airports remain committed to working with their concessionaire, airline and other tenants to manage waste responsibly. They will be working to balance health and safety and waste generation from single-use items such as silverware, coffee cups and serving items. They will also be working closely with their food donation partners and waste management service providers to understand the changing requirements for donation, recycling and composting.

Holiday travelers can play an important role in supporting airports’ waste diversion efforts. Keeping in mind the sustainable materials management hierarchy, passengers can stay off the naughty list by following these Santa-approved steps:

  • Use the airlines’ apps and skip the paper boarding pass.
  • Check airports’ websites for information about recycling and sustainability programs.
  • Check TSA’s website for information about traveling with wrapped gifts, food and beverage items.
  • Travel with a reusable water bottle (gift idea!) and take advantage of bottle-filling stations after clearing security.
  • Be mindful of carry-on liquid restrictions and pack toiletries and food items accordingly.
  • Consider portion sizes when ordering at airport restaurants.
  • Pack sturdy snacks that travel well to avoid food waste. (Might I suggest gingerbread?)
  • Decline in-flight snacks and beverages on short flights.
  • Weigh your luggage to avoid the need to dispose of clothing or other personal items due to overweight bags.
  • Empty beverages from recyclable bottles and cans before placing in collection containers.
  • Recycle and compost only the items accepted by an airport’s program.
  • Properly dispose of non-recyclable items in the trash.
  • Don’t be a Grinch! Take care to place disposable masks in curbside or parking lot garbage cans after leaving the airport terminal or ground transportation center.

GBB is supporting the airport industry’s efforts to recover from COVID-19 and return to high levels of sustainability and waste diversion, including during peak travel and cargo seasons like the holidays.

For example, GBB is working on a waste diversion technical study for a large hub airport, its reliever facilities and their joint operating authority, which will include identifying strategies to manage the waste generated by the movement of millions of passengers and tons of cargo. GBB is also facilitating best practice sharing and cross-agency coordination by serving on the leadership team of an industry working group dedicated to airport waste management.

Like Rudolph and his team of reindeer friends, with a little coordination, solid waste experts, airports and passengers can work together to deliver a joyous and sustainable holiday season.