Plane trash

BWI, a few other airports recycle to hold down costs

January 24, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

No matter what you drink aboard your flight or in the airport lounge, odds are the can or bottle is thrown in the trash can instead of a recycling bin.

The aviation industry is pitching enough aluminum cans each year to build 58 Boeing 747s, says a two-year study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Also being tossed: 9,000 tons of plastic and newspapers that could fill a football field and make a pile 230 feet high, the study found.

Some airports, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, are recycling some of it. But most don't because officials believe it will be costly or an extra hassle. The New York-based environmental group is trying to get others to see the savings in reducing trash and the potential profit in selling the waste on the recycling market.

"Many airports aren't living up to their potential; they are living up to their local laws," said Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist for the group and a report co-author.

The report highlights programs at Seattle-Tacoma International, Oakland International, Portland International and BWI. The airports, their concessionaires and airlines are saving at least $100,000 each a year by selling recyclables and reducing fees for dumping the trash at landfills.

BWI cut roughly $15,000 off a monthly trash bill of about $75,000 in the past two years since it expanded a 12-year-old program. It consolidated waste handling to one contract so it could more easily separate recyclables. It now saves more than 27 percent from the waste stream - more than 200 tons out of close to 800 total tons of trash a year. That exceeds a state mandate for all government agencies of 20 percent.

The airport chose to focus on recycling cardboard because so much of it comes through the terminals in the form of boxes. Edwin Maker Sr., who manages the BWI program, said that in addition to lessening its landfill costs, the airport saves $4,000 to $5,000 a month on maintenance now that the cardboard isn't jamming the trash compactors.

BWI collects other recyclables from passengers and employees in 43 containers placed throughout the terminals. It has 33 containers outside the gates for airline workers to use when cleaning aircraft.

The airport has 26 trash compactors, which tenants pay for with their lease payments. The savings from recycling help the airport keep overall costs down, an airport spokesman said.

Most passengers are used to recycling at home and work, so getting them to use recycle bins wasn't too hard, airport officials said.

Concessionaires began participating for the most part, once they knew where to put their cardboard and other items. The airlines, however, have been tougher because they face different rules at every airport and most don't have consistent programs on board to collect recyclables.

But the rate of recycling has BWI officials encouraged - enough to expand its program to food waste for composting next year.

Every month the trash and recycling are inspected by Richard Keller, manager of recycling for the Maryland Environmental Service, an independent agency that looks for ways to protect state resources. He consults with the airport on how to keep more trash from entering the landfill.

"It's a matter of education," Maker said after discovering some errant cardboard in the trash compactor recently. "We're at 27 percent recycled, and my personal goal is in the 40s."

About 30 airports

BWI and about 30 other large airports the environmental group reviewed generate the same amount of trash as a city the size of Miami, and about three-quarters of it is recyclable or compostable. But even the best airport recycling programs don't reach the national recycling rate of 31 percent.

The report said one of the nation's most expansive and creative programs is at Seattle-Tacoma. Doug Holbrook, its manager of utilities and business management, said the airport ramped up the program in 2001. That year it recycled 112 tons and this year expects to save 1,200 tons, or 25 percent of the waste. The airport got concessionaires to participate by charging $5 each time they used the trash compactor and making recycling bins free.

The recyclables include coffee grounds sent to a composting facility that are returned and used as landscaping material. The airport also sells used cooking grease to a biodiesel plant that converts it to fuel. And Sea-Tac, as it's known, recently began collecting leftover food from airlines and restaurants for a food bank. More items are to be added to the program next year.

So far, the savings on landfill fees and recycling sales add up to about $150,000 to $200,000 a year.

A consistent policy for all airports and airlines could be tough because local recycling laws differ, say Holbrook and others. And the industry is also grappling with other environmental problems.

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