The Last Straw

Carol Lurie
November-December
2019

Carol Lurie (AICP, LEED AP, ENVISION SP) is the regional aviation director for VHB, a transportation planning and engineering consultancy. She is a past chair of the Airport Consultants Council, a founding member of the Sustainable Aviation Guidance Alliance, and has directed sustainability plans for airports coast-to-coast. She is also the principal investigator for ACRP studies focused on sustainability and a frequent presenter at conferences and seminars. When Lurie is not helping airports enhance their sustainability practices, she can be seen kayaking around New England and in exotic locales.

I’ve been offered an array of creative alternatives to plastic straws at airports around the world: metal (watch out for your front teeth), glass (biting not advised), paper (soggy, just like the olden days) and even hollow pasta (seriously not recommended). Still, my personal favorite is no straw at all. But the sentiment in offering alternatives is right. Whatever we can do to reduce plastic straws and single-use containers is worth it—when we travel and at home. 

Look around next time you are in a terminal. Everything is encased in plastic—from items at the gift shops and food court to single-use plastic water bottles (let’s follow the lead of SFO and the Airport Authority of India to ban them!). Bravo to concessionaires that buy back read books bought at the airport, so the next traveler can immerse themselves in literature as they fly to another destination. 

Passengers expect recycling bins and nursing stations; they crave healthy food options and yoga rooms. Airports with varied retail and relaxation options, public art/museum displays and children’s play spaces have become attractive options for layovers versus airports that are less appealing or don’t have many distractions. These features are not only good for the environment, they are also good for business. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I am watching with admiration as airports around the world are committing to and becoming carbon neutral. The Airport Carbon Accreditation program promotes the concept by recognizing when an airport’s net annual carbon dioxide emissions is zero (i.e. the airport absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide as it produces). This is typically achieved through a combination of carbon reduction efforts by the airport and its partners, and carbon offsetting by providing funds or resources to other projects that reduce CO2 to make up for the emissions that airports are not able to eliminate. Kudos to the 283 airports in 71 countries that account for almost 44% of global air traffic that are working towards this goal. In the U.S., 43 airports have signed on to the Airport Carbon Accreditation program, and DFW has succeeded in achieving carbon neutrality. 

These bold efforts bookend the myriad innovative ideas that airports and airlines are implementing to reduce their effects on surrounding communities and the environment, to be good neighbors and to promote economic development. Some of my favorites include: 

  • Collecting/donating excess packaged food from concessionaires and airline and contributing to the Food Heroes program (ATL, BOS, SEA and many others) 
  • Providing awareness training about human trafficking to airport and airline staff (Airline Ambassadors International)
  • Executing/supporting zero waste flights that send no refuse to landfills (Qantas)
  • Building sustainable food courts stocked with compostable materials, including utensils and plates (ATL) 
  • Installing vertical living walls with sprouting greenery that encourage customers to linger and relax (SFO, DTW, ORD, BHX) 
  • Partnering with tech developers and innovation labs to develop and test new ideas for simplifying the airport journey or creating spaces for interactive children’s entertainment (SAN)

It all counts—from getting rid of plastic straws to promoting electric plugs-ins and supporting large-scale renewable energy projects. Airports need a variety of tactics to be more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Collectively, the industry must commit to making improvements; and tenants and vendors must also respond to travelers’ needs. With a thirst for exploring the world, we have an opportunity to make a positive difference.   

Footnote: 

I’m just back from a bucket list trip to the Galapagos, which was a breathtaking balance of wondrous wildlife, precious environmental marvels and stunning beauty. I was struck by how the islanders are sustainable in all their practices as a matter of course. Not one single plastic straw. Recycling receptables everywhere. Short duration showers. Reusable containers. The imperative for conservation and preservation is in the life blood of the residents. That is the way forward for us all. 




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