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Why sustainability is not a flight of fancy

For Heathrow, the UK’s largest single site employer, sustainability and growth go hand in hand. Andrea Lockerbie finds out why

“Sustainability is a really core agenda for Heathrow,” Matt Gorman, director of sustainability at Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) says. “What does it mean for us? Well, it is about enhancing some of the huge economic benefits that we know Heathrow brings: nationally, but also regionally and locally. But at the same time as doing that, reducing our environmental impact and operating within environmental limits. That is really the vision for us: get the benefits, deliver the benefits, but at the same time tackle our environmental impact.”

Heathrow is the UK’s hub airport, with 80% of the UK’s long-haul flights departing from the airport. Gorman explains that the kind of connectivity it provides is really important, particularly in terms of trade for the country. Each day 76,500 people clock on to work at the airport, with about half of those living in the local area, so it is also a big work generator. “But we recognise that there are downsides to living near an airport as well: noise from aircraft, emissions from aircraft, busy roads on the road network around the airport – and it is really important that we tackle those issues as well. And that is really what sustainability is all about,” he says.

The drivers to tackling its sustainability are cost, public expectation and its licence to grow and operate. “Because we are a small city at Heathrow, we use a lot of energy, we produce a lot of waste, we use a lot of water, and in all of those areas there is a real cost saving opportunity in operating more efficiently: using less energy, looking at other ways of generating energy. So that’s a real driver for us, to explore how we can use resources as efficiently as possible,” Gorman explains.

He adds the expectations of businesses are also rising, and there are local communities scrutinising its performance in this area. On top of that, customers and employees are increasingly interested in sustainability. “There are some good stats that show that taking your environmental responsibility seriously, acting as a responsible business, is seen as important by staff – both prospective employees and current employees. So it is a real opportunity for us to improve employee engagement.”

As a heavily regulated business, he adds that regulations are getting more complex and it needs to respond to these and meet them as they change. “We as a business have growth aspirations, we recognise that environmental issues are one of the big challenges there, so setting out a really clear environmental strategy, we think, would be core to earning that licence to grow in the future,” he explains.

HAL employs only around 10% of the 76,500 employees that work on the airport each day. The airport directly supports another 40,000 jobs in the local area, such as those employed by catering companies for the aircraft or logistics businesses. “Although we control some of what happens in the airport, if we want to improve performance across this whole agenda a lot of it relies on working in partnership with all of the other airport employers here. In some cases that involves us setting standards that they need to meet, in some cases it is about influencing, working with them to improve performance. One of the things we have set up to help us do that is something called the Heathrow Sustainability Partnership,” Gorman explains.

This is chaired by Heathrow’s chief executive, and brings together the chief executives or MDs of around 15 of Heathrow airport’s biggest employers, cutting across a range of sectors, such as airlines, ground handlers, catering, construction and retail. The idea is that group agrees, at senior level, shared performance targets for the airport and can help drive performance to improve, as well as unblocking any obstacles if needed.

“It’s a really important tool for us, and has had some good success on the waste issue and car sharing, recycling cooking oil at the airport – a whole host has been unlocked through that group,” he says.

Probably early next year, Heathrow will publish its own sustainability roadmap for the airport, setting out its long-term goals and delivery plans for the business to 2020.  This will cover issues such as the national economy, local employment, reducing emissions from energy, recycling, using water more efficiently, noise, air pollution, as well as operating a safe airport and providing good conditions for its employees. This will be aligned with its business planning cycle.

“We deliberately set goals at 2020 because we are regulated by economic regulators, the Civil Aviation Authority, and every five years they determine how much we can charge airlines operating here and as a result we develop a really thorough five year business plan, setting out the capital investment we going to make in the airport, the operational expenditure and so on. So it makes real sense to align our sustainability targets with that process so it is really embedded in the business.

“The big question beyond 2020 for us as well is ‘does the Government support growth at Heathrow?’ It has set up an independent commission to look at that, we published our long term options [in July] and there are a set of sustainability targets linked to that as well, that we would set out to meet. If over the next two or three years the Government concludes it would like growth at Heathrow, then clearly we would be developing a whole set of plans specifically around that as well,” he adds.

Potential in aircraft cabin waste recycling

As part of Heathrow’s waste analysis work with Closed Loop Environmental Solutions (see page xx), it found there was great potential to extract more recyclables from the cabin waste stream coming off aircraft.

Eight of the airport’s 17-18 waste compactors distributed across the airfield take in solely aircraft cabin waste – what is left on the floor of planes and collected by the contract cleaners. Heathrow worked with the regulators at a regional level, using a mobile MRF to process the aircraft cabin waste from these compactors, which is generally deemed ‘category 1’.

Heathrow waste and environment manager Mark Robertson explains: “Historically this has been going to incineration, regardless of the fact that it has high recycling content, as we have now found. But we were able to agree with animal health that we could put each one of these compactors through the plant so that we could do an analysis on it, so we could find out how much recycling was in those compactors.

“And it was very telling for animal health, because they were quite surprised - bordering on shocked – at how much good recycling was in those compactors. And - but for the sake of a little bit of food that had got in there because of somebody being careless - the whole lot had to be consigned for incineration. So that was a real breakthrough for us and animal health as well, because it means they now have a much clearer understanding of how their regulations impact on the pressure that all business is under to improve its recycling.”

Robertson says there was potentially about 50-60% recyclable material in the cabin waste stream. If that was clean and complied with regulations and hadn’t come into contact with food, it could potentially be recycled.

He adds: “We are looking to do a piece of work with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that is going to explore further the recycling opportunities within aircraft cabin waste and the airlines. And we are looking to partner with a number of airlines and IATA to do that, so IATA can take that information and use it at a more global level.”

Leading the way at Heathrow

After running waste analysis trials at Heathrow and working with airline Qantas in Australia, Closed Loop Environmental Solutions director Peter Goodwin is determined to crack the recycling and waste issue at Heathrow – and beyond.

Goodwin sees “real opportunity” in aligning the work done by the airlines and airports and hopes to pioneer the model at Heathrow, to then take throughout the aviation industry.

He says: “The way Closed Loop view this, is that an element of standardisation in the approach to how an airline presents its waste, globally, would be an advantage to move this forward and I think the governing bodies would also push for that. Now, you have to temper that with each individual airline’s own commercial interests – and that is the next challenge.”

There is currently no standardisation for airlines and airports in terms of waste and recycling. Heathrow waste and environment manager Mark Robertson explains: “The frustration that we hear from the carriers time after time is that when they come into Heathrow they do something different from when they fly into Kuala Lumpur and then when they fly from KL to Hong Kong, again it is something different.So it is very difficult for them to provide a standard training package to cabin staff because they are doing something different everywhere they go, depending on which route, even which flight they are on.”

Goodwin essentially wants to look at putting together a packaging compliance scheme for the airlines and terminals – getting them to use materials that have value post-use, which can then go back into the recovery system. The challenge is getting businesses to change the type of packaging material used, when it is typically bought on cost. But he believes that working with the customer through the supply chain to deliver value at the back end, will mean this value can ultimately be passed back through the chain to those procuring the goods, effectively making the move cost neutral.

“Part of the reason we got involved in this project was for us to be able to be able to influence upstream in terms of material specification,” Goodwin says. Heathrow is a closed environment, with waste generated and collected on site, so has the benefit of being able to collect great volumes of waste materials and potentially develop end use markets for it.

“Our interest in working in working with Heathrow is that if you look at it in context of this kind of challenge - it is up there as one of the number one places in the UK barring an Olympics games in terms of magnitude and complexity. If we can work with Heathrow and deliver success here, for us it helps us develop a fantastic template for us to take not only to other parts of the UK but to other transport areas like rail networks, other airports and internationally.”

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