The aviation industry, broadly understood, has long been the source of substantial waste management challenges, both for the host airports themselves and for the communities in which they are situated.

It is only very recently that much attention has been paid to addressing these aviation waste practices and, to date, no meaningful integrated strategy, capturing all aviation waste materials across the supply chain, has emerged.

And yet, with recent seismic shifts in air travel demand, inefficient industry-wide, carbon-intensive systems are ripe for disruption.

The Curious Case of Heathrow Runway Three

The recent decision of England’s Court of Appeal denying an application for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, based on unmitigated climate change impacts, should be viewed as a clarion call for the aviation industry, and not merely on the issue of aircraft emissions.

In its environmental assessment plan for waste, Heathrow (properly) proposed compliance with the EU Circular Economy Action Plan and related Waste Directives. Still, the project was short on new solutions and without any infrastructure commitments. The obligations to manage the resulting increased waste was, once again, to be borne by the local communities.

Aviation as Good Neighbours?

Ironically, the new runway at Heathrow would have caused a reduction in waste management capacity with the likely closure of a nearby waste-to-energy facility. For aviation to succeed in maintaining good standing (and necessary approvals), it must be less isolated and better neighbours to the communities they serve. 

With bailouts in the aviation industry pending, a case is being made by politicians to possibly attach environmental performance conditions. Aviation has always been a mix of public service, and private venture and the public may want environmental benefits in any trade for government financial relief.  

Airports’ “Zero Landfill” Goals Require Upstream Coordination

The notion that airports should not be the generators of landfilled waste is not particularly new or novel. The Airport Council International’s (ACI) Policy and Recommended Handbook makes this clear:

“Airports should promote the culture of avoiding solid waste generation and, where possible, extracting value from remaining waste with the ultimate goal of sending zero waste to landfills.”

But as we’ve seen with every waste stream challenge (in aviation and elsewhere), policies that place the onus upon the waste collector alone, without coordination with the sources of such waste, have failed.

Airports can’t do this alone. They need an aggregated, collaborative and readily available “market-making” circular economic platform. A platform with a mission to provide a base of research and expert knowledge can drive value for the industry, both short and long term.

So Many Waste Streams / So Much Waste

Despite traffic fluctuations, waste production continues unabated and managing aviation-related waste streams remains a challenge. The current siloed multi-stakeholder strategy prevents value extraction through resource recovery and examples of neglected waste streams, include:

  • municipal solid waste (MSW) from terrestrial sources;
  • deplaned passenger waste, including single-use plastic items;
  • international waste – from both international flights and the terminals which service them;
  • construction and demolition waste;
  • hazardous waste, including solvents and other liquid industrial wastes;
  • compostable and biodegradable wastes – without reference to any facilities to compost or biodegrade them; and
  • lavatory wastes.

Resource recovery models incorporating many of these waste streams would provide decreased cost, increased savings and excellent environmental stewardship. It’s worth noting waste volumes from large airports, such as Heathrow, provides the industry with sufficient economies of scale to address some or all of these materials at source.

Industry Initiatives on Waste Management

Aviation industry associations would be the logical source to push forward with an international standard on waste management in the aviation industry. There are tangible signs that the industry recognizes the need for standards to be relied upon to reduce costs ultimately. 

After all, as expansion plans get shelved, flights cut, and revenues fluctuate, the strategic airport focus must be placed on doing more with less.

The approaches to date have been expressly tasked to “Airport Waste Managers” and haven’t proposed how the airline industry, among other stakeholders, might be integrated into any solution. Further, the issues of product and material recoverability have mainly been omitted from the discussion. Circular economic principles, however, will help industry associations and their members rewrite this narrative.

Bridging the Data Gaps

In assessing how an aviation-wide circular economic waste management strategy might emerge, understanding and quantifying the problem is the first step. The undertaking of an initial waste audit of vital international airports would help determine:

  • what waste categories are maintained?
  • what are the volumes of such waste and from what sources they derive?
  • what waste management measures exist specific to each stream?
  • what are the laws and institutional practices which might present barriers to harmonization?

Once the extent of the challenge is understood, progress towards an international standard for aviation waste management can begin. This standard could well encompass all passenger-related waste as its first phase, using an interconnected platform to ensure industry success.

Towards A Unified Standard for Aviation Waste

With the development of such a standard might come certifications, which could operate as verification of right environmental practice (at least at first instance).

Doing so would help to revive an industry as it faces inevitable scrutiny from more empowered eco-minded consumers, eco-savvy investors, and eco-responsible communities. More difficult than developing the standard might be enlisting the various aviation stakeholders to collaborate on waste now in these turbulent times. Still, the downturn might be the time for the industry to reimagine itself.


If the Heathrow decision tells us anything, it is that the aviation industry has an opportunity, if not a mandate, to develop new environmental practices that ultimately offer cost reductions, efficiencies, and new revenue streams.

Author

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm's Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation. Mr. Cocker maintains a blog focused upon international resource recovery issues at environmentlawinsights.com.

Author

Andrew R. Wilson is the Executive Director of The International Aviation Waste Management Association (IAWMA.org). The IAWMA is a non-profit organization, and marketplace founded on research, to champion and disseminate circular economic knowledge for the benefit of the aviation industry. As Executive Director, Andrew brings a wealth of industry-related knowledge from his experience in the travel industry. Andrew was instrumental in growing a small start-up to one of Canada's most admired airlines and third-largest scheduled air carriers. Andrew also held leadership roles in sales and marketing, brand development, communications, public and customer relations. In addition to aviation, he also held various roles at the world's largest travel distribution company. Positions included local, national, and international sales, customer service, and marketing roles.