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Airports innovate as waste management challenges grow

Written by: Alexa Stone

The number of people travelling by air increased 4.2% worldwide in 2019. A further 4.1% increase is expected this year.[1] That increased population will bring more than tickets and luggage to airports. The food and packaging they carry, along with all that is consumed in-terminal, means inevitable waste management challenges.

Major airports are finding solutions. Here are six best practices for waste management that have been reported on recently:


Airport Food Service
Food service location at LGW
Implementing a circular system
Gatwick Airport (LGW)

A circular system uses recovered resources whenever possible.

In planning their system, LGW began with a review of waste management practices. The comprehensive review included concessionaire policies, and as a result, those policies now call for resource recovery. Food and beverage outlets must separate wet from dry materials. Waste sorting and handling procedures are regularly audited.

New and updated concessionaire leases
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

ATL and SFO concessionaire leases limit single-use plastics and encourage use of compostable utensils.

In cases of noncompliance, ATL issues an initial warning. A notice of violation follows any second instance. Beyond that, the lease is dropped. ATL’s proposal requests specify that Styrofoam and hard-to-recycle number 5 plastics must be avoided.

Repurposing of discarded plastic
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

Plastic bottles collected at Atlanta’s airport, aquarium, and stadium have become a commodity. The material from those bottles, after processing, can be made into fabric for clothing.[2]

Concrete recycling
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

DFW recycles the concrete that is washed from the chutes and hoppers of trucks at airfield construction sites. Washout waste recycling has diverted 2.4 million pounds of concrete that otherwise would have gone to landfills.


PEK Airport Water Bottle
Water bottle refill station at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)
Water bottle refill stations
Many airports, worldwide

Travelers may bring empty water bottles with them. Regardless of what the bottles are made of, they can be filled at water fountains or hydration stations in the terminals.[3]

Banning bottled water
San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Vendors and vending machines at SFO may not sell water in any single-use container of 1 liter or less. In fact, they can’t give it away! Distribution of free bottled water is prohibited.[4]

Ending use of plastic straws
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

The airport is phasing-out single-use plastic straws. With full implementation of the ban, four million straws will have been removed from the DFW waste stream each year.


Changi Airport recycling
Recycling bins at Changi Airport
Recycling bin visibility
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW)
and Singapore Changi Airport (SIN)

Recycling bin colors and shapes help passengers make correct recycling choices.

At DTW North Terminal, recycling bin contents are brought to an in-terminal compactor before being transported to a local recycling facility.[5]

Standardized recycling bin labels
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP)
Orlando International Airport (MCO)

These airports have standardized recycling bin labels, using labels from Recycle Across America[7], a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides the better bin labeling solutions described in a downloadable Toolkit for Airports.[6]


Food donation partnership
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
Restaurant/bar in ATL terminal
Restaurant/bar in the international terminal at ATL

ATL concessionaires donate rather than discard edible food. A food waste management company provides pick-up service on demand, then delivers the food to charities. Each day, the program collects an average of 800 to 1,200 pounds, enabling the donation of over 200,000 meals. As 150 tons of food waste are diverted from the landfill, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 95 tons annually.

Concessionaire earn a tax write-off of up to 30% of retail price. That’s a collective yield of more than $1 million in tax savings.[8]


London Heathrow Airport
London’s busiest airport, LHR
Plastic recycling unit
Heathrow Airport (LHR)

LHR has invested in a technology having the potential to recycle 100 percent of the airport’s plastic waste. Each hour, the unit produces between 17 and 22 pounds of plastics oil from 22 pounds of waste.[10] Up to 5,500 tons of plastic can be diverted from incineration each year.

The plastics oil from the new recycling unit can be processed into low-carbon furniture, fabrics, and other products. One day, it could also be transformed into Jet A1-type sustainable fuels.[11]

Onsite material sorting and separation
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
and Gatwick Airport (LGW)

Needing to dispose of 30,000 tons of waste each year, ALT recognized that Georgia has a shortage of waste management facilities. In response, the airport is building its own recycling and composting facility, Green Acres.

South of London, LGW is constructing an onsite material sorting and separation facility.

Biomass boiler
Gatwick Airport (LGW)

A biomass boiler, onsite at LGW, processes international catering waste and other organic matter into fuel that generates 4.75 million kWh of renewable heat each year.[12]

Deicing fluid collection system
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

Deicing fluid collection, storage, and treatment facilities at DFW are being upgraded to protect nearby streams from pollution in rainwater or runoff. In Phase 1 of the its master plan for Spent Aircraft Deicing Fluid Recovery, DFW is evaluating requirements and identifying improvements or alternatives to the existing recovery system.[13]


Zero to Landfill certification
Gatwick Airport (LGW)

In 2018, Gatwick claimed honors as the first airport to receive Zero Waste to Landfill accreditation from the Carbon Trust. In achieving that recognition, the airport had reduced use of materials and recycled all coffee cups and plastic bottles.[14]

Zero Waste initiatives
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and
San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

After a waste composition study at Terminal D, DFW’s ongoing Zero Waste Program has a 45% waste reduction goal. Zero Waste efforts are also in-progress at ATL and SFO. SFO has a 2021 goal to become the world’s first Zero Waste airport.

Have you seen Solid Waste Management (SWM) best practices at other airports… or in other industries? We at ecoPreserve would love to share news of those innovations! Please leave a note on the Contact page. Your insights will be published in an update to this post or in another article this spring. Thank you!

[6] Related article on — Passengers pitch in to divert landfill waste
[8] — Food Heroes Program
[9] — High-Tech Flight Plan for Food Waste
[12] — U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization