Sea-Tac Expands Recycling Program to Off-Aircraft Materials

Kathy Hamilton
Published in: 

Recycling pays. But that's not the only reason Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is spending $1.5 million to integrate off-aircraft materials into its already award-winning recycling program.

"Recycling made sense economically and environmentally when we implemented the airport recycling program in 1993, and it still makes sense," says Elizabeth Leavitt, Sea-Tac's environmental director.

Leavitt explains that recycling comes naturally in the environmentally conscious Northwest: "Our public expects it; it's just the right thing to do."

Each year, Sea-Tac saves approximately $170,000 in avoided disposal costs "doing the right thing." It also recently garnered the title of "Best Workplace for Recycling" for the third year running from Washington's King County Solid Waste Division. By expanding recycling onto the airfield and developing incentives to motivate airport tenants and concessions to recycle, the airport intends to bump its current 22% recycling rate to 50% by 2014.

"If you can design a program so tenants and business partners pay for the resources they consume, they're more motivated to conserve," explains Leavitt.

The airport anticipates saving $250,000 per year through reduced waste disposal costs once its off-aircraft recycling program is fully implemented and airlines are actively recycling. Construction of the infrastructure for the program - a centralized airside system with six large-capacity recycling and trash compactors - is expected to be complete during the first quarter of 2010.

Facts and Figures

Project: Off-Aircraft Recycling

Location: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Cost: $1.5 million

Benefits: Reducing waste sent to landfills and waste disposal costs

Strategy: Recycle bins are posted airside at gates, paired directly with waste bins that require a card swipe and fee to open.

Other Program Elements: Concessionaires compost tons of food waste monthly.

According to Leavitt, Sea-Tac airlines have expressed interest in participating in the off-aircraft recycling program. The airport will encourage participation by placing the recycling and trash compactors near gates on each concourse. The trash compactors will require a card swipe to open, and airlines will be charged a fee each time personnel deposit trash. Recycle bins will open for free.

"It's not hard to discern the incentive to recycle," notes Leavitt.

Lonely at the Top

While many airports are greening operations through energy-saving and clean air initiatives, airport and airline recycling efforts generally lag behind the rest of the nation. The volume and variety of materials recycled at Sea-Tac distinguish its efforts.

According to a 2006 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the 30 largest U.S. airports generated about 300,000 tons of waste in 2004 - about the same as Minneapolis or Miami. Many of the nation's airports recycle, but rates for even the top-ranked recyclers are lower than the general population's rate of 31% nationwide.

Many airports are impeded by inadequate local infrastructure or a lack of aftermarket sources for recycled materials. If, for example, a city's recycling programs are limited to paper and plastic, there's no point in the airport recycling aluminum.

Within King County and the City of Seattle, various recycling services are available to manage a host of materials. Sea-Tac's program includes traditional recyclables like paper and plastics, but also includes aluminum, scrap metal, wood and glass. In addition to placing recycle bins throughout the terminal, airport offices have dedicated recycling bins at each desk for paper, and toner cartridges and used batteries are recycled from office resource areas.

Supporting local efforts to expand recycling capabilities can help foster a stronger overall partnership between the airport and the city, notes Leavitt.

Sea-Tac even recycles food scraps, coffee grounds and other organic material from concessionaires into compost; used cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel.

According to Leavitt, as much as 16 tons of coffee grounds and food waste are recycled each month. Next year, the airport hopes to boost its numbers even higher by encouraging travelers to participate in a post-consumer food waste recycling program.

Sea-Tac concessionaires also divert materials from landfill by donating unsold items to local food banks. To date, airport tenants have donated more than 30,000 pounds of food since the program began in 2006.

Other Obstacles

Even though airport recycling is prevalent at various levels, airlines haven't been extraordinarily quick to implement off-aircraft recycling programs. Inconsistent practices, inadequate airport recycling infrastructure, cost and logistical constraints are often cited as main reasons.

"Airlines want to participate," says Leavitt. "But it's difficult for them to create procedures and supporting infrastructure, plus train their personnel, to accommodate the variety of recycling programs they encounter at airports around the nation."

Sea-Tac countered such objections by minimizing the effort it takes for airlines to recycle off-aircraft materials. Boldly labeled recycle and waste compactors will be positioned near airline gates for convenience.

Sea-Tac's main carriers, Alaska and its sister airline Horizon, have already implemented off-aircraft recycling. "Since Sea-Tac is our hub, we've concentrated our off-aircraft recycling efforts there, but several of our other airports are also able to accept our recyclables to varying degrees," reports Jacqueline Drumheller, Alaska's environmental program manager. Drumheller is confident that the new bins at Sea-Tac's gates will facilitate and enhance the airlines' efforts to recycle food scraps, plastics, glass and paper products.

According to Drumheller, Horizon has had "terrific success" with off-aircraft recycling since the 1990s, primarily because, as a commuter airline, most of its wastes consist of snack wrappers and cups. Horizon currently recycles approximately 92% of its off-aircraft wastes.

Off-aircraft recycling for Alaska Airlines is more challenging, because flights carry more passengers and include first-class food services. Caterer LSG Sky Chefs provides food service and handles waste disposal and recycling off site.

"We continue to explore ways to encourage off-aircraft recycling efforts," says Drumheller, noting that Alaska purchases products such as cups and flatware made from recyclable materials and provides flight attendants with recycle bags. "We've seen a tremendous increase in the amount of recycling since we began providing the logo recycle bags," she reports.

Strategies for Success

Leavitt identifies support from management and widespread cooperation and training throughout the airport as other key elements to Sea-Tac's recycling successes.

The Port of Seattle partners with the airport in developing its recycling programs and authorizes the ultimate initiatives. Managing recycling efforts under a central authority, notes Leavitt, provides economies of scale. Handling larger volumes of combined recycled wastes is more cost-effective than handling smaller, individual tenant volumes.

Sea-Tac's recycling program relies on the participation and cooperation of the Airport Environmental Program, the Facilities and Infrastructure Department and concession tenants, which contribute a significant portion of the program's recycled material.

"With our incentive-based recycling program, everyone is inclined to participate. It's a matter of saving money by recycling or spending it for waste disposal," says Leavitt.

Training for everyone involved is one-on-one, and ongoing. "We continually train new tenants and employees, and we closely monitor participation in the airport's recycling program," reports Leavitt. "If a problem is indicated, we retrain the parties involved."

The airport initially used a recycling consultant, but has since changed its approach. "We found that it's more efficient and less costly to rely solely on in-house personnel resources if you have them," explains Leavitt.

The airlines train their own personnel. Several have developed written guidelines, color-coded disposal receptacles and other tools to simplify the process.

Undeniable Logic

"Our overall goal is to be responsible stewards of the environment," says Leavitt. In doing so, Sea-Tac minimizes its contributions to landfills, reduces and optimizes its use of resources, and saves money.

"By selling recyclables to the secondary materials market, Sea-Tac is doing its part to reduce the global demand for raw materials," adds Leavitt.


2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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