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Recycling really takes off

As the largest single-site employer in the east of England, Stansted airport has a commercial waste operation on a scale unlike any other. The airport has made a big effort to encourage recycling among the hundreds of shops and catering facilities on the site, through incentive schemes that offer free recycling services for mixed dry recyclables and source-segregated cardboard, metals and glass, while charging for waste disposal.

Airport environmental standards manager John Thain (pictured) explains: “We’ve incentivised recycling so that retailers can get the buy-in on the general waste cost. As a result, we have seen general waste reducing and an increased uptake of free cardboard recycling and, more recently, free mixed recyclable collections. Retailers have to ensure it is dry, clean and recyclable - if not, they are warned that our team will log it as general waste. So we are educating these companies as we do it so that it makes sense for them.

“We’ve spent £24,000 investing in new recycling bins for the international departure lounge (IDL), particularly for plastic bottles, paper, card and general waste, after feedback from passengers told us that existing bins were hard to locate. People recycle at home and they almost expect that they can do it here. They’re putting more pressure on us now to change - we’re in a different place than we were when I joined five years ago.”

Most recently, Stansted launched a food waste composting service, which aims to divert up to 400 tonnes a year of waste from landfill that is generated by the site’s catering companies and food retailers. It has already seen 79 tonnes sent for composting in Huntingdon since its launch in May.

The initiatives implemented by Stansted airport means that it has already exceeded parent company BAA group recycling targets of 40%, and the airport has a year-to-date recycling figure of 53%.

Airport environmental compliance manager Kathy Morrissey says: “We’ve seen a huge change, from a struggle to get 20% recycling to more than 50% recycling now. Our philosophy is that we encourage avoidance and reuse at the top of the waste hierarchy.”
So what do they do with the waste?

“People recycle at home and they almost expect that they can do it here. They’re putting more pressure on us now to change”

“Where we can separate high-value commodities such as cardboard and glass, we’ll pull those out and sell them, and we compost our own green waste at the airport. Residual dry material that is difficult to separate goes to off-site sorting, while everything else landside goes off to a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) facility. So landfill is our absolute last resort.”

In addition to the waste of thousands of visitors passing through the IDL every day, and the recycling rates of hundreds of businesses and catering facilities on-site, the airport brings with it some other, more unique, recycling challenges. These include the problem of international catering waste, as well as hazardous waste generated at passenger security checkpoints. Such waste includes sharp metal objects, aerosols and liquids which are surrendered at security from passenger hand luggage, as well as assorted chemicals and engine oils from the aeroplanes and maintenance crews.

Thain says that such waste is not necessarily high volume but must be separated before it leaves the airport. Wastes generated at security checkpoints is hand-sorted to ensure any hazardous wastes are controlled and recycled wherever possible.

“Our airport waste contractor Grundon has a hazardous waste site, where the waste undergoes further sorting and is recycled whenever possible,” Thain says. “Aerosols are degassed, and oil cans from aircraft maintenance are emptied and cleaned, with both the oil and metal being recycled.

“Grundon reports back on what percentage is recycled and incinerated as part of its monthly datasheet. Other hazardous or difficult waste streams such as tyres, batteries that have come out of tools and engine oils are recycled through specialist contractors managed by our engineering teams. We track quantities and ensure that all compliance requirements are met.”

Thain says the airport is also looking to reclaim and reuse waste generated from some of its more unlikely areas, including unclaimed baggage, old uniforms and discarded buggies.

Another issue for the airport is the possible contamination of its waste stream with stray catering waste from international flights. Such waste is regulated under the EU Animal By-products Regulations as a ‘category one animal by-product’ because it carries a high risk for potential contamination of UK plant and animal eco-systems as well a risk to human health.

Morrissey says: “Category one waste is entirely the airline’s responsibility - we don’t allow that into our waste stream. If we can pull dry uncontaminated material off those planes, that’s good because we can then recycle it. However, if it’s a catered flight, all
the food is collected up and the airlines take it to their own facilities.

“What we’re dealing with is the risk that you get a tiny amount that could cause problems in our waste stream, so we need to make sure that risk is managed. We ensure that any waste streams with a risk of contamination are taken to an approved site, and we are working closely with a number of airlines and other airports to increase the collection of recyclable materials from aircraft cabins before it is contaminated by any food.”

Stansted airport has been given permission to grow to a capacity of 35 million passengers a year in the coming years, which will put it on a similar capacity to that of Gatwick. But Morrissey believes that meeting waste targets and growing the airport’s capacity at once are both possible.

“One of the things is to make sure we’ve got the right equipment and technology in the right place,” she says. “One of the things we’ve been looking at with our contractors is compaction equipment to allow us to collect waste more efficiently, and reduce haulage. We’ve now got a lot of routes that we can send our recycling to. The thing is how to get it collected and packed up more efficiently. As the airport grows, that’ll be our challenge.”

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