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Turn left for first class analysis

Heathrow has pioneered a new type of waste analysis to help it thoroughly understand its waste stream in order to achieve 70% recycling by 2020. Andrea Lockerbie finds out more

Heathrow City, as Mark Robertson, Heathrow Airport’s waste and environment manager calls it, is indeed a little world of its own. It has over 3,000 service providers and tenants. Each day, around 80,000 people work there and an average of 191,200 passengers arrive and depart. The average number of flights, daily, for 2012 was 1,288, for which there are international catering waste treatment requirements. That means that any waste that has been in contact with food that comes off an airline is deemed ‘category one’ waste and must be treated in accordance with animal by-product regulations, which generally means it goes to incineration.  So it is a challenging environment for recycling and waste management.

Somewhere in the depths of Heathrow, sitting in a mobile office, I meet Robertson and Peter Goodwin, Closed Loop Environmental Solutions (CLES) UK director. CLES is the consultancy sister company of bottle recycler Closed Loop Recycling, so also has Australian roots, as Goodwin’s accent gives away. The pair have been brought together in a bid to really find out what is in Heathrow’s waste stream, so that Robertson can put together a business case and plan for what the airport needs to invest in to get it to 70% recycling by 2020. Its current recycling rate is about 34%.

Robertson explains: “Part of my role is to write a business case for the business to say, ‘if we need to invest in infrastructure, what type of infrastructure does it need to be, and how much is it going to cost’ and importantly for us ‘what is it going to deliver?’ Because what we are very conscious of as a business is that we need to deliver value for money for our stakeholders – that includes the airlines and effectively all the tenants on the airport.

“We need to make sure we support that in the most economically efficient way and as a side shoot to that, I have also got to make sure it is also environmentally and legally compliant and also sustainable. It is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if we can get the business leaned out and we can get it efficient, then it is going to be sustainable by its very nature and that generally means it is well managed as well. And from an economical and environmental point of view, means we are really on top of the game.”

Back in 2009, Robertson says Heathrow undertook a “typical, standard waste analysis” which it used as the basis for building a business case but it was keen to have more robust data this time around.

“Where the airport would like to be is realising value from its waste stream, getting rid of the word ‘waste’ and saying this is a resource, that we can either sell as recycling on the open market – and we would obviously want to get the best possible price we can for it - or it is a resource that will generate energy for us,” Robertson says.

With the Lakeside energy from waste plant across the M25 from Heathrow, and Grundon being the airport’s waste contractor as well as one half of the Lakeside joint venture with Viridor, there is potential for the airport’s non-recyclable residual waste to become feedstock to supply energy back to the airport. Robertson explains: “We are not there yet, we have got a long way to go, but the first start point is to work out what is in our waste stream and if we can actually get to that 70% recycling rate with what is in our waste stream.”

That is where CLES and Heathrow’s recent waste analysis come in. CLES’s Australian business has worked hard with Qantas to improve recycling for its domestic flights within Australia. Goodwin says this whetted the company’s appetite for tackling recycling within the aviation sector: “We thought ‘how can we work with Heathrow to challenge what is a very complex multi-stakeholder environment that is almost one of those problems that is in the too-hard-to-solve box’?”

He explains: “Previously in the UK a lot of work had been done on compositional analysis where ultimately a number of bags from a compactor had been broken open and basically a large amount of assumption was made that that 5% or those 10 bags were representative of the waste stream. Now, when we are talking about airports, there are so many different points of waste generation that have different composition: front of house, lounges, administrative offices, engineering centres – it is so diverse that, in this instance and based on that previous study, it is very dangerous to take a bag split. If that percentage of bag split had come from just one of those areas, it is not going to be representative of the whole waste stream.”

He adds that it isn’t commercially viable to get a commercial waste contractor to perform such a study, and such MRFs may not be configured to allow close analysis of the waste. “So what we were looking for was something in the middle – something that gave us seven days of continuous analysis, so we could see a fluctuation throughout the week of waste from each business unit,” he explains.

CLES analysed just under 100 tonnes of waste in a two month period. (See box) Heathrow City produces around 110,000 tonnes of waste per year, and Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) as a business manages about a quarter of that, 25-26,000 tonnes. “So to be able to have a sample of about 100 tonnes compared to 25,000 tonnes is actually, statistically, pretty appealing to us,” Robertson explains.

Having proved its worth at Heathrow, CLES now wants to take its solution to the market as a new, genuinely insightful, compositional analysis methodology that offers that middle solution between a manual basic bag break and an automated commercial MRF.  

Robertson says there were no surprises in the results: there was more packaging and marginally more recycling, and they have helped highlight where Heathrow needs to invest in infrastructure and change of business processes. “We need the people and places to link up with the processes – that all needs to gel together. We can’t just provide the infrastructure and not give any training about how to use it. We need those three to come together to produce the result.”

An important part of the project has been showing those in procurement what ends up in the waste stream. “We need to control what is coming into the airport so we can generate less wastage in the first place. That is something we will be very keen to show through the business case, and how we reflect these results in the business case will be in financial terms.”

Robertson says there is “no one solution fits all” and he will present the business with its options on a cost-benefit basis. “We know that when we come up with a solution it will be right for the airport.”

The methodology

Six ‘business units’ were identified from which to take waste samples: terminals 1, 3 and 4 all had waste collected ‘landside’ and ‘airside’, which means before and after the security checkpoint.

Material from the general waste and mixed recyclable compactors from each of these business units was then diverted for a period of seven days to the mobile MRF, which used a positive, manual picking process.  Goodwin explains this enabled it to “get a real true full compositional analysis” and remove any assumptions from the data.

“What we were doing was ‘de-risking’ any future option that was going to be taken up by Heathrow, and for the first time ever, that we understand, providing a compositional analysis to this kind of level,” he says.

“What enabled us to do that was this piece of kit – which is basically a mobile MRF. A MRF designed to fit within a 40 foot shipping container and one that can analyse – depending on whether it is a dirty stream or a clean stream – between about half a tonne to a tonne of waste per hour.”

With merchant MRFs usually running at eight to nine tonnes per hour, from Heathrow’s point of view the slower speed of the mini MRF gave it a lot of confidence in the results.

Goodwin adds: “Our KPIs were very different to that of a commercial MRF, ultimately we were driven around quality. Our main objective was ‘meet the specification - get everything out of the waste stream’, we weren’t dependent on the value of the material at the back end to justify what we were doing.”

Versatile mobile mini MRF

  • CLES’s mobile MRF was initially designed by its colleagues in Australia as a temporary facility for the events and festivals marketplace, which led to its name ‘turnstile’ after the turnstiles you have at sporting events.
  • It is proving to be a versatile tool, with remote communities in Australia also interested in it as a permanent facility, as they are too small to produce enough waste to warrant building a MRF but too far away from the nearest municipality to be transporting unsegregated and unbaled materials.
  • Some Australian councils have also used it as a waste analysis tool, such as Canberra City Council.
  • Built within a 40 foot shipping container, it can be lifted and dropped in a day. This is ideal where there are space restrictions and means projects can be started swiftly.

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