Airports: The next waste diversion frontier

Columns - Waste Watch

October 9, 2018

Whether traveling for work or pleasure, many of us find ourselves living a portion of our lives in airports. Today’s airports have grown large enough to encompass most attributes of a city or community.

Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), for example, is ranked in the top 20 busiest U.S. airports with more than 34 million passengers passing through each year. It has roads, infrastructure, diverse facilities that provide a range of services and amenities, a long-term master plan guiding its future development and nearly 18,000 employees—that equates to a lot of waste.

Because of its sheer scope, these “mini- cities” also generate waste with unique characteristics.

Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. recently conducted an in-depth waste and recyclables composition study at a U.S. airport that is similar in size to DTW. The study, which was conducted to identify opportunities for enhanced solid waste management and diversion goals, found that:

The industry’s effort to standardize and create better management practices for airports across the United States is commendable.
  • Twenty-two percent of waste was from food and water.
  • Twenty-five percent was easily recyclable materials (i.e., old corrugated cardboard (OCC), news and office paper, mixed paper, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), ferrous metals and aluminum cans).
  • In addition to the food and water, 14 percent of materials were found to be compostable.
  • An additional 22 percent could be potentially diverted from the waste stream (this includes other plastics, film and reusable textiles).
  • Water remaining in plastic bottles was a significant contributor to the overall disposed weight.
  • Contamination, especially in food waste and film, was a significant issue.

Trying to manage and divert this diverse waste stream is a challenge and an opportunity thanks to the variety of operations that take place and the transient nature of those who use these facilities.

The good news is that the Federal Aviation Agency Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) expanded the definition of airport planning when it was passed to mandate “developing a plan for recycling and minimizing the generation of airport solid waste” to help bring about a more conscientious approach to handling airport refuse.

The industry’s effort to standardize and create better management practices for airports across the United States is commendable. As solid waste management professionals, we know this issue well—one method of waste management does not fit all types of waste—but if we standardize our methods of measurement and reporting, we can learn more quickly what does and does not work for differing localities.

In order to better solve waste management challenges in these mini-cities across the country, it is important to watch how this community begins to tackle its waste management obstacles in new and innovative ways. All it takes is one model to help set the entire industry on the right flight path to smarter waste management practices. wt