Heathrow waste goes first class

Heathrow Airport is upgrading its sustainability agenda as it looks to push waste up the hierarchy. Stakeholder engagement and behavioural change will form the backbone of this challenge, as Maxine Perella finds out

Questions are often asked whether UK aviation can continue to grow within ecological limits. As the political barometer works overtime on the pros and cons of building a third runway at Heathrow, those working at the airport’s coalface of sustainability know only too well how delicate a balancing act it is to broaden horizons and add value to the passenger experience while minimising environmental impact.

Heathrow is the third biggest airport in the world, serving around 70 million customers a year. More than 320 businesses also operate from its site, collectively employing some 76,500 people. Dealing with such numbers, coupled with the logistical time constraints of orchestrating a packed flight schedule, might make carbon crunching a poor cousin to connecting the UK to the rest of the world if it weren’t for the fact that managing such operations sustainably underpins the airport’s long-term vision to be ‘Europe’s hub of choice’.

How seriously the airport’s owner, Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL), takes this is evident to see in its waste operations – arguably the most visible strand of its environmental drive. Running the airport generates around 110,000 tonnes a waste a year – to put that into context, it’s roughly the same amount generated by households from a typical London borough.

HAL is directly responsible for managing a quarter of that – 26,000 tonnes – arisings that stem from both airside and landside operations through its contract with Grundon Waste Management, which operates an energy-from-waste facility nearby. The majority however is outside of its control, generated by the individual hotels and businesses associated with the site. According to HAL’s waste & environment manager Mark Robertson, this is something his company is now looking to influence.

“Through our Heathrow Sustainability Partnership we are working with a number of commercial players throughout the airport to see if we can streamline waste operations and get the most value from the materials in terms of recycling and pushing waste up the hierarchy. It’s an exciting piece of work for us,” he says.
The partnership model is built around collaboration and while it goes wider than waste – transport, resources and people are its three main focus areas – plans are already underway to measure the airport’s entire waste footprint with a view to streamlining materials management by identifying bottlenecks and hotspots of ‘wasteful’ activity.

Robertson says the initiative was borne out of a recognition that improving the airport’s environmental performance lies not just with HAL itself, but the whole airport community. Fifteen blue chips operating at the airport have signed up to the initiative including British Airways, catering firm Gate Gourmet, facilities management company Amey, Hertz Car Hire and construction giant Ferrovial.

One key project will look to harness greater recycling rates from aircraft cabin waste. More than half of this material stream is plastic, paper and glass – up to 80% of which is potentially recyclable. Here HAL will be working with British Airways to develop a better practice model for recycling catering waste which could potentially be rolled out across other airlines and the cleaning supply chain.

The biggest challenge for any airport to deal with however is category 1 international aircraft catering waste. This is food and beverages that have originated from international flights and as such, they are subject to strict disposal regulations. Heathrow is currently working with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and IATA, the governing body representing airports and airlines to lobby for a change in the EU regulations.

“If you look at our airside operations, about 60-70% of the waste generated comes off aircraft so it’s a big part of our waste stream, but we are restricted with what we can do with it. To be compliant with Animal By-Products regulations, any category 1 waste has to be incinerated,” Robertson explains.

“The zero tolerance enforcement is tying our hands too much when we are under pressure to improve recycling performance. We’d like to see a risk-based approach taken by the regulators, based on where the flight originated from and the WHO classification on disease and risk level,” he adds.

It would be a significant victory for HAL if it were to achieve its aims. Its current recycling rate is 29%, but if you take category 1 waste out of the equation this leaps up to 44%. Moving waste up the hierarchy is now a chief environmental driver at Heathrow – the airport has a strategic key performance indicator to recycle 70% of its waste by 2020.

“To achieve that 70% figure, if you look at our 29% rate we have to increase that by two-and-half times – that’s a big, big jump,” Robertson notes. “Around 19,000 of the 26,000 tonnes of waste we collect goes to incineration, we need that to be recycled to hit our 70% target. It’s no mean feat.”

To deliver on this, Robertson and his team are putting together a business case that will span over a five-year period (2014-19) to maximise recycling rates. If it gets approval, this will not only mean serious investment in new waste infrastructure, but crucially, the adoption of a far-reaching behavioural change programme that will look to educate the entire airport community including staff, passengers and supply chains.

This could pave the way for some game-changing innovation such as the introduction of a packaging compliance scheme for suppliers. If it goes ahead, Robertson believes Heathrow will be the first airport to set such a standard.
As he aptly puts it: “If you’re going to do business with us in the future as a supplier, you might have to use a certain type of packaging – one which is easily recyclable and where there is an end-market for it. It won’t be easy, we have over 2,000 suppliers across the airport, but we would look to work with the biggest first and work down from there.”

On the infrastructure front, HAL is looking to build on its Terminal 5 achievements which as a terminal, is recycling around 60% of its waste. As a new build, it had waste management facilities built into it from the outset and the same will apply to the new build Heathrow Terminal 2 which will open in 2013. More recycling facilities airside will also be installed, enabling staff to check quality and contamination levels prior to collections to maximise material value.

Robertson readily admits that for many years waste was a secondary consideration at a site that is “incredibly busy for 18 hours a day”, but he is confident that will soon change. Heathrow is about to take flight when it comes to sustainable resource management. Hopefully it will take the whole airport community with it as it embarks on this journey.

Maxine Perella is Waste Market Editor at edie

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