Commercial waste disposal for airports

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Airport waste management in numbers

<h3><a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">224,449,807</a>


passengers flew from UK airports in 2022

<h3><a href="]" target="_blank" rel="noopener">28 Minutes</a>

28 Minutes

highest average delay: Doncaster Sheffield Airport

<h3><a href="]" target="_blank" rel="noopener">1.9 Million tonnes</a>

1.9 Million tonnes

cargo transported in 2023

Waste management in airports

Commercial waste collection services ensure that airports comply with stringent environmental regulations and lead the way in eco-friendly practices.

Discover how airports across the UK are becoming a beacon of sustainability.

We will cover the following subjects in detail:

Waste streams in airports

Airports serve as bustling hubs for travellers, generating many waste types due to their complex operations and high passenger volumes.

Efforts to manage this waste span from recycling initiatives to reducing single-use plastics.

Understanding these common waste streams is essential for developing effective environmental and waste management strategies.

<h3>Foreign object debris (FOD)</h3>

Foreign object debris (FOD)

Foreign object debris (FOD) refers to any substance and debris alien to an aircraft or airport environment that could cause damage.

FOD includes items such as broken pavement fragments, wildlife, loose hardware, and litter.

These objects can lead to aircraft damage and operational disruptions and pose safety risks during the takeoff, landing, and taxiing phases.

An example of FOD is a piece of metal on the runway, which, if ingested by an aircraft engine, can cause significant damage and endanger flight safety.

<h3>Paper waste</h3>

Paper waste

Paper waste at airports primarily consists of discarded boarding passes, itineraries, magazines, newspapers, and packaging from retail and food outlets.

Efficient management involves commercial recycling programs to reduce the environmental impact, encouraging digital boarding passes and itineraries.

Ensuring paper waste is properly recycled and not mixed with general waste supports sustainability efforts at airports.

<h3>Construction waste</h3>

Construction waste

Construction waste at airports can be common; with UK travel growing each year and airports having to expand to cope, it’s something an airport would need to consider.

Construction waste encompasses materials discarded during airport facilities’ construction, renovation, or demolition, including concrete, metals, wood, and asphalt. It also includes materials from the maintenance of airport infrastructure.

An example is the removal and replacement of old asphalt from runways, resulting in large quantities of asphalt waste. Proper management is crucial to recycle and dispose of these materials responsibly, minimising environmental impact.

<h3>Confiscated waste</h3>

Confiscated waste

Airports face a unique waste challenge with confiscated items at security, including oversized liquids, aerosols, sharp objects, and banned electronics.

These frequently confiscated items, as well as the vast confiscation of water bottles, become waste that requires careful management.

Balancing safety and sustainability, airports must efficiently dispose of these goods while prioritising recycling and repurposing efforts. This approach not only addresses security needs but also fosters environmental responsibility.

<h3>Food waste</h3>

Food waste

Food waste at airports can be vast, with passengers rushing to catch their flights and leaving uneaten meals, snacks, beverages and unsold items from airport vendors.

Managing commercial food waste efficiently involves implementing recycling programs, donating edible food to local charities, and possibly using organic waste for composting to reduce environmental impact and support community initiatives.

This waste type is significant due to the high volume of travellers and airport operations.

<h3>Electronics waste</h3>

Electronics waste

Electronic waste (e-waste) at airports can include confiscated e-cigarettes and forgotten electronic devices. Such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets, lost headphones and chargers, wearables left at security, such as smartwatches, and airport use electronic equipment that may have been upgraded.

Proper disposal and e-waste recycling are crucial to prevent harmful chemicals from polluting the environment and recovering valuable materials.

E-waste recycling programs at airports help manage this waste stream effectively, ensuring electronics are either refurbished, recycled, or disposed of responsibly.

<h3>Plastic waste</h3>

Plastic waste

Plastic waste at airports includes single-use plastic items such as bottles, cups, straws, food packaging, and plastic bags, including plastic-based products used in airport facilities like seating, signage, and retail items.

Active management involves implementing recycling programs and reducing single-use plastics by encouraging reusable alternatives, aiming to minimise environmental impact and promote sustainability within the airport’s operations.

Did you know?

Gatwick Airport, in collaboration with DHL Supply Chain, opened a £3.8m waste management plant. Making Gatwick the first airport in the world to convert airport waste, such as food and packaging, into energy onsite.

This initiative is expected to save the airport approximately £1,000 daily in business electricity prices and commercial waste collection costs.

Waste disposal strategy in airports

Airports deploy a variety of commercial bin types to manage waste efficiently, from recycling and organic waste bins to general rubbish and hazardous waste containers.

These bins are tailored in size, from compact 60-litre units for indoor use to larger 1100-litre containers for outdoor waste collection. This strategic approach ensures that every type of waste is handled properly.

The following table provides a detailed overview of strategic waste bin placements across various sections of an airport, from landside entrances to airside lounges. Outlining the specific locations where waste bins are positioned, the types of bins used, and the distinct purposes they serve.

LocationType of BinsWherePurpose
Entrance and Check-in AreasGeneral waste and recycling bins for paper, plastic, and cansLandsideTo cater to the disposal of travel documents, food packaging, and beverages consumed before security checks
Security Screening AreasSpecialised bins for the disposal of liquids and small, non-hazardous prohibited itemsLandside to Airside TransitionTo manage the waste generated from items confiscated during security checks, ensuring they are disposed of or recycled appropriately
Waiting Lounges/Gate AreasRecycling stations for paper, plastic, cans, and general waste binsAirsideTo accommodate the disposal of food packaging, newspapers, and duty-free shopping waste, promoting recycling efforts
Restaurants and Food CourtsCompost bins for organic waste, alongside recycling and general waste binsAirside and LandsideTo manage food waste and packaging materials, supporting waste separation at the source
RestroomsSanitary waste bins and general waste binsAirsideTo handle sanitary products and paper towels, ensuring hygiene and preventing plumbing issues
Boarding GatesGeneral waste and recycling binsAirsideFor last-minute disposal of water bottles and snacks before boarding the aircraft, minimising waste onboard
Baggage Claim AreasGeneral waste binsLandsideTo collect travel-related debris such as tags, damaged luggage parts, or unwanted papers
Duty-Free and Retail AreasRecycling bins for paper and plastics, general waste binsAirsideTo handle packaging waste and receipts, encouraging passengers to recycle shopping-related waste
Outdoor Areas near Entrances/ExitsCigarette disposal units and general waste binsLandsideTo reduce littering of cigarette butts and accommodate waste generated by travelers and visitors outside the terminal
Administrative and Office AreasPaper recycling bins, electronic waste collection pointsAirside and LandsideTo manage office waste, including paper and outdated electronic equipment, ensuring secure and environmentally sound disposal practices
Parking and Rental Car FacilitiesGeneral waste bins, recycling bins for paper and bottlesLandsideTo collect waste generated by travelers before they enter or after they exit the airport, including maps, fast food packaging, and beverage containers
Maintenance and Service Areas Hazardous waste containers, general waste binsAirside and LandsideFor the disposal of maintenance-related materials such as batteries, paint, and solvents, ensuring they are handled according to safety and environmental regulations

Waste minimisation strategies in airports

Waste minimisation in airports is critical due to the high volume of waste generated by passengers, retail outlets, and airline operations daily. Waste minimisation is the first part of the waste hierarchy, the basis for UK waste regulations.

Efficient waste management not only reduces environmental impact but also aligns with global sustainability goals, helping airports lower operational costs and improve their public image.

Here are key examples of waste minimisation tips for airports to follow:

<h3>Composting programs for organic waste</h3>

Composting programs for organic waste

Establish composting facilities to handle organic waste from airport restaurants, food courts, and coffee shops, turning food scraps and compostable packaging into valuable compost for landscaping purposes.

<h3>Recycling stations for electronics</h3>

Recycling stations for electronics

Install dedicated bins for passengers and employees to dispose of used batteries, old mobile phones, and other small electronics safely, ensuring proper recycling of e-waste.

<h3>Water fountains to reduce single-use plastic</h3>

Water fountains to reduce single-use plastic

Implement the installation of water fountains and refill stations throughout the airport, including terminals, lounges, and gate areas, to encourage passengers and staff to refill reusable water bottles instead of purchasing single-use plastic bottles.

<h3>Donation programs for unopened food</h3>

Donation programs for unopened food

Partner with local food banks and charities to donate unopened and non-perishable food items from airport vendors that might otherwise go to waste, helping the community and reducing food waste.

<h3>Bulk dispensers in restrooms</h3>

Bulk dispensers in restrooms

Replace single-use toiletry items in restrooms (like soap, shampoo in lounge showers, and hand sanitiser) with bulk dispensers to minimise plastic waste and reduce costs associated with packaging.

Sustainable waste practices in airports

In a recent initiative by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airports globally are taking significant strides towards environmental sustainability – with a keen focus on sustainable waste practices.

This move, crucial for reducing the carbon footprint, involves innovative waste management strategies prioritising recycling, reuse, and reduction.

By embracing technologies that facilitate efficient waste segregation and advocating for the circular economy, airports set a new standard.

This collaborative effort among airlines, airport authorities, and government bodies not only aligns with global environmental goals but also presents a model for commercial sectors in the UK, emphasising the importance of unity in tackling environmental challenges.

Overview of IATA influenced sustainable waste practices in airports:

  1. Efficient waste segregation
  2. Promotion of circular economy principles
  3. Reduction of single-use plastics
  4. The adoption of innovative technologies

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Heathrow’s waste minimisation strategy

Heathrow Airport has initiated a pioneering trial aimed at enhancing its recycling rates by converting unrecyclable plastic passenger waste, such as food packaging and plastic film, into various products, including airport furniture, uniforms, and lower-emission jet fuel by 2025.

This innovative project involves the testing of a new recycling unit, developed in collaboration with University College London and Sheffield-based Catal, capable of processing up to 5,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic.

The initiative underscores Heathrow’s commitment to sustainability by potentially enabling the airport to recycle 100% of its on-airport plastic waste and reducing the environmental impact of aviation-related activities.

SAF: Sustainable aviation fuel

The UK’s Sustainable Aviation coalition emphasises the critical need for collaborative efforts between the government and the aviation sector to reach net zero emissions.

The UK government’s Jet Zero strategy includes improving the efficiency of the aviation system and supporting sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

What is it?

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is a cleaner alternative to conventional jet fuel, made from sustainable resources like waste oils and agricultural residues.

It significantly reduces aviation’s carbon footprint by offering up to 80% lower carbon emissions over its lifecycle compared to traditional jet fuel. SAF can be used in existing aircraft engines without modification, making it a viable option for reducing emissions from flights.

The UK aviation industry, through initiatives like the Sustainable Aviation coalition, is pushing for increased SAF production and use to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Why is it important?

SAF is crucial because it significantly reduces the carbon footprint of aviation, a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Using sustainable resources, SAF can decrease lifecycle carbon emissions by up to 80% compared to conventional jet fuel. This transition supports global climate goals and enhances energy security by diversifying fuel sources.

It fosters economic growth through the development of new green industries.

Its compatibility with existing aircraft engines facilitates a smoother transition to greener aviation without the need for significant infrastructure changes.

What are they made out of?

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) are made from various sustainable resources, including:

  • Waste oils and fats: Used cooking oil and non-edible animal fats.
  • Agricultural residues: Stalks and husks from crops not used for food.
  • Energy crops: Plants grown specifically for energy production without competing with food crops.
  • Municipal solid waste: Household and commercial waste materials.
  • Algae: Fast-growing aquatic plants that can produce oils used for fuel.

Airport commercial waste management FAQs

We answer your frequently asked questions surrounding airport waste management below.

How can passengers contribute to sustainable waste management at airports?

Passengers can play a significant role in contributing to sustainable waste management at airports through several practices.

Embracing the use of refillable water bottles is a crucial step. With the resurgence of public bottle refill stations across airports, passengers are encouraged to refill their bottles instead of buying single-use plastic bottles.

Passengers can also help by choosing airlines and airports committed to reducing their environmental impact. Contributing to a larger demand for sustainable practices within the aviation industry.

This includes supporting airports that have taken steps to eliminate single-use plastics and those investing in SAF and zero-emission aircraft technologies.

Through these actions, passengers not only advocate for a greener aviation sector but also contribute to the industry’s overall goal of reducing carbon emissions and achieving net-zero targets​​​.

This initiative not only reduces plastic waste but also revives the tradition of using public water sources, supporting the global movement towards reducing reliance on single-use plastics.

What role do airlines play in airport waste management?

Airlines play a crucial role in airport waste management by focusing on reducing, reusing, and recycling cabin waste from their flight operations to minimise their environmental footprint.

There’s a growing concern among passengers about the impact of single-use plastics, and airlines are also focused on minimising food waste.

Regulatory challenges sometimes hinder airlines’ ability to manage cabin waste effectively.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is advocating for simplifying cabin waste regulations to promote technical solutions that reduce costs and contribute to the circular economy.

What is deplaned waste?

Deplaned waste refers to the waste that is removed from an aircraft after it has landed. This type of waste can include a variety of items, such as leftover food and beverages from inflight services.

Managing deplaned waste is a significant aspect of airport waste management practices – as it involves handling potentially large volumes of mixed waste, including recyclables, compostables, and landfill items.

How is waste management at airports evolving with technology?

Airport waste management is evolving with technology to improve efficiency, sustainability, and environmental protection.

Innovations include implementing circular systems for resource recovery, promoting recycling and composting, and reducing single-use plastics.

Technological advancements such as:

  • Smart waste bins that use AI for sorting recyclables.
  • Waste level sensors to optimise collection schedules.
  • AI recycling robots for more accurate sorting.
  • Pneumatic waste pipes for direct waste transport.
  • Solar-powered compactors to increase bin capacity are revolutionising waste management.