Sustainable skies

Through a partnership with Portland State on a variety of sustainable projects, Portland International Airport has garnered a “best airport for business travelers” award from a well-known travel magazine for the second consecutive year.

Through a partnership with Portland State on a variety of sustainable projects, Portland International Airport has garnered a “best airport for business travelers” award from a well-known travel magazine for the second consecutive year.

Over the last five years, the Community Environmental Services (CES) program at PSU has been working closely with the Port of Portland on what is termed the “Airport Waste Minimization Project.”

CES is a research and service unit within the Center for Urban Studies in the College of Urban and Public Affairs at PSU.

The Port is made up of four area airports, seven business parks and a host of marine terminals involved with travel and shipping in Portland.

Dan Blue, principal investigator and research associate faculty member at PSU, said the project focuses on recycling, waste prevention, and resource conservation as means for significantly reducing waste generation and disposal at the airport.

Conde Nast Traveler magazine gave PDX the award because of new sustainable projects such as solar paneling, the use of low-flush toilets to help reduce water usage and composting wasted food, according to the article.

The partnership began in January of 2002 when PDX contacted CES with a request to run a “waste assessment.” The assessment took project members through dumpsters at the airport to find out just what was being thrown away, Blue said. Team members found a lot of food waste, he said.

According to CES data, PDX produces around seven tons of garbage every day, and 35 percent of that is compostable food waste.

Blue is responsible for the overall outcomes of the project, negotiating the scope of the project between PSU and the Port of Portland, as well as putting together and managing a project team, helping develop plans for the project and participating in the project hands-on.

Blue said initially CES’ goal was to establish a food waste pilot project, which led to a five-year partnership between the Port of Portland and PSU.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Blue. “The port gets recovery goals improving their waste minimization programs, and PSU students get first hand coordination, reporting and management experience.”

Currently, PDX diverts 150 tons of food waste every year, including food scraps, soiled napkins and paper towels, coffee grounds, and wax paper, Sorenson said. That waste eventually ends up at Cedar Groves Composting Facility where it is processed and packaged for resale as garden compost, she said.

“This partnership between an institute of higher education and an airport is unique,” said Blue. “Its one of the reasons PDX is so recognized. The public higher ed partnership has a lot to do with it.”

Meredith Sorenson, the lead consultant and top graduate student on the project, identifies the four culprits for the high volume of food waste as the airport’s food court, public areas such as bathrooms and terminals, administrative areas, and waste from airlines services.

CES decided to focus on the food court to start in order to study and control the production of solid waste at PDX, said Sorenson.

“The public is a new audience every day, but businesses are a captive audience,” Sorenson said, “So we began with five pilot businesses for a six-month trial.”

The five food establishments targeted were specifically selected to represent both smaller and more local businesses, as well as larger national chains, she said.

The diversion of compostable food waste away from landfills is incredibly important, Sorenson said.

“Food waste in landfills creates methane gas, which is 32 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but food waste that is composted creates a nutrient rich soil amendment.”

Businesses in the Portland area are also mandated by the city to recycle 50 percent of their waste, including composting.

“It’s like a win-win-win,” Sorenson said.

Implementation of a composting system at the airport required the CES team to work with each business to meet individual and site-specific needs, she said.

Initially the businesses face space constraints, making the addition of even one new bin for food waste difficult, said Sorenson. Also, a high-turnover rate at food establishments made keeping new employees up to speed on the project time-consuming, she said.

Sorenson said the team developed bilingual educational materials and container labels to combat this problem.

CES also had to install central collection containers at the airport and organize the pick-up and transportation of compostable materials, which caused some problems, Sorenson said.

“We had a big problem with seagulls being attracted to the dumpsters,” she said. “And we got a call from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] saying ‘we can’t have those seagulls on the tarmac. Do something about it.’ It required an easy fix, in the end.”

Another problem came from the airplanes themselves, she said.

“Our dumpsters, it turned out, were situated right where the planes would rev up their engines during pre-flight testing,” Sorenson said. “The jet-wash would push the dumpsters hundreds of feet down the tarmac. Our people would come into work and see them way off down the runway and think ‘is someone playing a joke on us?'”

That problem, too, required only the simple installation of curbs around the dumpsters to fix, Sorenson said.

After six months of training employees, establishing a functional infrastructure for composting and solving unforeseen problems, the program expanded to include 25 of the 27 food establishments in the airport.

The success of this project has caught the attention of the airlines themselves–in 2006 Horizon Air began adding their coffee grounds to the food waste dumpsters at the airport, Sorenson said.

Also, PDX is currently renovating the terminal of one food court to include composting bins, she said.

“It feels like we are at a tipping point,” says Sorenson. “We used to call people to try to get them involved. Now we have people calling us and asking for help.”