Efforts Continue to Reduce Waste at Airports


A major airport resembles a small city in many respects. A wide range of activities are constantly taking place, with many commercial transactions that produce waste: paper, plastics, food and beverages, construction debris…the list goes on. The FAA has recognized that to improve the sustainability of airport functions, these waste streams should be reduced. This was reinforced when Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2102, which includes the requirement for certain FAA-funded projects that “if the project is for an airport that has an airport master plan, the master plan addresses issues relating to solid waste recycling at the airport, including:

  • the feasibility of solid waste recycling at the airport                  
  • minimizing the generation of solid waste at the Airport
  • operation and maintenance requirements
  • the review of waste management contracts 
  •  the potential for cost savings or the generation of revenue”

The FAA has begun to implement this guidance and provide support. Pilot studies of sustainability measures, including solid waste reduction, have been taking place at various airports around the US. A Program Guidance Letter was issued in September 2012, requiring that Airport Master Plan updates include “develop[ing] a plan for recycling and minimizing the generation of airport solid waste…” including, as the first step, a waste audit.  In other words, you have to know what is in your airport’s trash before you can make a logical and cost-effective plan to reduce it. A further Program Guidance Letter is expected this year, and several reports have recently been issued to provide detailed guidance to specific activities within major airports.

At the November Florida Airports Council Specialty Conference, ESA’s Kelly Runyon gave a presentation on this topic. His talk took a closer look at samples of airport waste. His primary point was that airport management needs to understand, not only what is in the waste stream, but how it got there. For example: It’s not enough to know that the wastes from a specific terminal are comprised of 22% beverage containers. It’s more important to recognize that a significant part of that 22% gets in the trash when passengers and staff enter the restrooms.  They need a separate receptacle for beverage containers to intercept them before they land in a trash can full of paper towels. Then they can be recycled.

There are further details to consider: receptacle style, placement, signage, etc. And what about the concessionaires’ kitchens? The flight kitchens? The arriving aircraft? Each sub-stream requires careful planning to intercept recyclables and reduce wastes.

See below for a sample of wastes from one part of a major West Coast airport. What recyclables do you see?  Are you including food wastes and food-soiled paper on that list? (You probably should.)

Once you identify your waste streams and decide to do something about it, training and motivating workers and tenants to keep materials separate is crucial to successful results. Partner with your local waste and recycling service provider(s) who close the loop by preparing materials for scrap and recycling markets. Contracts can also incentivize all these activities – if they are well written.

Kelly’s presentation closed with a summary that is also a haiku:
          Look at your discards.
          What behavior(s) put them there?
          Make contracts that work!

Mr. Runyon is a senior manager in ESA’s Sustainable Communities Group, and much of his work is to assist agencies and cities in developing and implementing solid-waste reduction programs. In short, he is a “garbologist” with more than 30 years of experience looking at (and carefully measuring) what’s in a solid waste stream, then recommending ways to recycle more or simply discard less. Contact Kelly at krunyon [at] esassoc [dot] com or at 415-896-5900 for more information.