Chicago Airports Forge New Territory with Mandatory Green Standards for Concessionaires

Victoria Soukup Jensen
Published in: 

When it comes to long-term sustainability, it's one thing to talk the talk and quite another to walk the walk. That said, the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) is boldly striding where no other airport authority has gone by extending its green policies to airport concessionaires.




Project: Green Concessions Policy

Locations: Midway Int'l Airport; O'Hare Int'l Airport

Administrator: Chicago Dept. of Aviation

Implementation Deadline: Dec. 31, 2013

Contractors/Consultants: Landrum & Brown; Unison Retail Management

Key Goals: Reduce waste, encourage sustainable practices & increase use of healthy, sustainable food

Strategy: Policy bans polystyrene foam, petroleum-based plastic bags & disposable plastic consumer containers/utensils; policy requires source-separating all solid waste refuse & increased procurement of sustainable foods

Enforcement: Concessionaires will incur financial or lease-related penalties for non-compliance

All concession operators at O'Hare International Airport (ORD) and Midway International Airport (MDW) are required to adopt standards that support healthier eating choices, reduce waste and promote a cleaner environment. And they have until Dec. 31 to fully implement their new strategies.

Specifically, the sweeping new CDA policy:

• bans polystyrene (Styrofoam) products and petroleum-based bags, utensils and consumer containers

• requires concessionaires to separate all waste into recyclables, compostables and refuse

• prohibits the purchase of cleaning and hygiene products that are not green-certified

• mandates the use of more sustainable foods

• requires concessionaires to donate surplus food to the greatest extent allowable by food safety regulations

"We created the green concessions policy to provide concessionaires at O'Hare and Midway with guidance and standards for providing a more customer-friendly environment and experience that is healthier for passengers, employees and the environment," explains CDA Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino.

Except for initial cost concerns, the changes have been well-received by concessionaires, report CDA officials. Some companies are even surpassing their expectations. Andolino says concessionaires understand that customers are demanding more in the way of sustainable foods and corporate responsibility. "We believe that they see our policy as a good opportunity to establish green reputations for their brands, which will make them more competitive in the long run," she explains.

Premier Restaurant Group, which operates 15 businesses at MDW, represents the positive way many concessionaires have reacted to the change. "While greening any operation of our size presents challenges, all of us at Premier believe it is the right thing to do for the environment, for our guests and for the company," says Stephen J. Miller, the company's vice president and chief operating officer. "We've been very, very aggressive with supporting the CDA's sustainability program."

De Rigueur

Green initiatives are nothing new for Chicago airports. In 2003, the O'Hare Modernization Program implemented sustainable requirements for all airport design and construction projects. "Since then, we've expanded our focus to look at the daily operations of everything that happens at our airports, including those of our concessionaires," explains Amy Malick, CDA's deputy commissioner of sustainability.

According to Malick, 40% of the daily waste produced by concessionaires at ORD and MDW is compostable organic material; however, it can't be composted when it's intermingled with non-recyclable plastic and polystyrene foam (Styrofoam).

"The most effective way to capture those resources would be to eliminate the waste that is non-recoverable, such as Styrofoam and plastic," Malick explains. "There is an upfront cost to going green; but in the end, we also feel we will see an economic benefit of a much-improved waste recovery program."

The policy also phases in requirements for concessionaires to use more sustainable foods, such as antibiotic-free meat, free-range eggs, fair trade products and products certified by the Food Alliance. In 2014, 5% of all food purchased must be sustainably sourced or certified organic. In 2015, the requirement will rise to 10%, then to 20% in 2016.

The new requirements won't require drastic changes for Premier. It already uses nothing but green cleaning products and does not use Styrofoam products, reports Miller. It also recently switched to recyclable bags, food containers, cups and napkins. In addition, the company strives to purchase a substantial percentage of its food from within a 250-mile radius and buys only hormone-free turkey, he adds.

"It's a thing we are addressing daily, and we are constantly changing to implement more sustainable choices," Miller explains. "We are enthusiastic about not only meeting, but exceeding,

the CDA's requirements for sustainable operations prior to the Dec. 31 deadline."

My Kingdom for a Cup

Argo Tea, a Chicago-based company with three locations at ORD, focuses much of its corporate business model on sustainability, renewable resources and recycling; so implementing the new CDA policies have not been a strain for it, either. Finding recyclable cups that are not made of petroleum-based materials, however, has been a challenge, relates Arsen Avakian, Argo's founder and chief executive officer.

"The pricing is very hard to match, since the recyclable cup is two to three times more expensive than the regular cups," Avakian says. "Only when the largest companies start driving the change to recyclable cups is when the manufacturers will be forced to set up factories and capacity to produce the cups in quantities that would drop the price."

Eventually, Avakian hopes to stretech beyond recyclable cups to fully biodegradable cups. "That means we don't even need to waste money or resources on recycling," he explains. "You just use the cup, and it disappears within 120 days."

Argo has achieved that goal with other staple consumables: special salad bowls made of a biodegradable material and fully biodegradable "sporks" (a spoon and fork combination) from the Far East. "We chose sporks because they eliminate fork and spoon use, which reduces overall usage," explains Avakian.

The company also purchases all of its food and ingredients directly from farmers to ensure the products are 100% sustainable, notes Avakian. "We ensure suppliers stay in business and have a healthy business," he explains. "In return, we get the highest quality and never compete for the best leaf or the best ginger or the best honey against other bigger companies."

Currently, Argo has about 40 stores in five countries around the world. It plans to open its second airport location next year at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. 

Retail, Too

CDA's new environmental requirements aren't just for food and beverage concessions. Retail operators must comply as well.

InMotion Entertainment, an electronics retailer with two locations at ORD, switched to recycled paper bags and uses green cleaning agents, paper towels and signage made of recycled materials. In addition, its sales clerks discourage the use of bags and routinely offer to unwrap purchases for customers before they leave the store. The latter practice allows workers to recycle packaging materials properly and speeds customers' enjoyment of purchases, explains Eden Goldberg, vice president of marketing and business development for InMotion.

Cooperative Effort

InMotion, Argo and all other ORD and MDW concessionaires were required to submit compliance plans detailing how they will meet the new environmental requirements. This allows CDA to help individual companies with the transition, says Malick.

"We're really trying to listen to our concessionaires in terms of the challenges they may be facing," she explains. "We will be reasonable about non-compliance if they've been communicating to us and have been clearly trying to resolve any challenges. But we are taking this very seriously. If any concessionaire fails to reach their milestones without communicating to us, there will be financial or lease-related penalties."

CDA understands that different concessionaires will face different challenges when implementing the green policies, Malick notes. Locations that are part of large chains may struggle to merge packaging restrictions with corporate branding requirements; small "mom-and-pop" shops may lack the resources to navigate available sourcing options. "We work with them to understand what they're facing, to see how we can help them out," she explains.

Nuts on Clark, a Chicago institution with three stores at ORD and one at MDW, has had an environmental program in place for years. The gourmet nuts, candy and popcorn business never uses polystyrene foam, uses nothing but green cleaning agents and recycles its corrugated boxes, reports company president, Estelle Kenney.

Last year, in fact, CDA recognized Nuts on Clark for its voluntary green policies. But the new policy required the company to change its bags. Stores now use biodegradable bags to package popcorn and for general shopping bags. Even though the new bags cost twice as much as the old bags, Kenney is understanding about the change: "It makes sense, and the customers seem to appreciate it. I find the policy very exciting, because just about everything being implemented is what we practice normally. I'm very comfortable from that standpoint."

According to Malick, communication has been key to the successful implementation of green changes. "If we have a group that is easily meeting our requirements and another group that cannot find options, we try to link them to resources that will help them comply," she explains.

Above & Beyond

HMSHost, a national company that operates concessions in more than 100 airports, is earning gold stars for its reaction to CDA's green initiatives. Instead of complying with new requirements, it went one step further and launched the Farmer's Market and Urban Garden at ORD - the first and only aeroponic garden in an airport. The 900-square-foot plot provides ready access to fresh produce for six HMSHost airport restaurants. Initial crops include parsley, cilantro, jalapeno peppers and edible flowers. 

"The market is witnessing the ushering in of a progressively more environmentally responsible era in airport dining," says Bradley Maher, director of operations for HMSHost. "Travelers are increasingly going to be able to find healthier dining options with natural, fresher ingredients from restaurants that are also on the cutting edge of observing sustainable guidelines regarding waste, energy usage, materials consumption, construction and product sourcing."

Industry-wide Efforts

CDA's new policy puts Chicago on the map in terms of sustainability and green initiatives, says Malick. "The city as a whole has a very aggressive goal in terms of sustainability," she notes. "This is just one of the many things we're doing to make Chicago greener. Consumers are demanding better quality when it comes to the food they eat and the products they buy. They want healthy and sustainable choices. This is a great opportunity for our airport to take a leadership position in these issues."

Andolino is proud of the leadership role Chicago airports have assumed within the industry. In addition to implementing exemplary environmental initiatives at its own facilities, CDA helps other operators by sponsoring Airports Going Green, an annual conference that highlights successful sustainability projects at airports throughout the world and presents expert speakers on a variety of environmental topics.

"Under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we are continuously raising the bar for sustainability at Chicago's airports and leading by example in the global aviation industry and beyond," notes Andolino. "Together with our concessionaires, we're creating a more sustainable and efficient operating environment at O'Hare and Midway, and sharing our environmental commitment with over 85 million passengers who travel through our facilities each year."


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