Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Best Practice Quasi-City

On October 27, 1969, my parents met my plane as it landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  Except for one or two weeks, I had been away from home for more than two years.

The world had changed.  I had changed too, and it was good to set foot again in the Pacific Northwest.

That day I was one of fewer than 14,000 people to pass through that airport compared to the nearly 100,000 who pass through it each day now.  By contrast, 24,000 people pass each day through RDU, the airport co-owned by Durham, North Carolina where I have lived the last 25 years.

In arrival greetings and other communication and marketing materials, airlines often confuse cities and the airports that serve them.  Airports are merely portals, and as it was for me that day in 1969, the final destination for most arrivals lies well beyond their primary cities.

But hosting 100,000 people a day and providing them with water, food, shopping, entertainment and security, not to mention solid waste and other sanitary disposal, makes a facility like SEA-TAC much like a city.

Most airports don’t make it convenient to recycle but SEA-TAC has been a leader in recycling over more than two decades, not just on the passenger side but also behind the scenes for its restaurants and what is called off-aircraft - the trash, food waste and other recyclables cleaned out of aircraft before they continue on.

Seattle, one of the cities the airport serves, is well known for coffee and not just as the home of Starbucks.  SEA-TAC collects more than 12 tons of coffee grounds each month from more than 60 airport shops using special bins.

The grounds are mixed with yard waste and sent to a composter, the results of which are then used on the airport’s landscape.  Cooking oil is collected and sold to convert to biodiesel.  More than 20,000 unopened meals are donated annually, and the scraps captured from passengers, shops and aircraft are recycled.

Airlines and concessionaries are charged for trash but recycling is free.  SEATAC is not only meeting the expectations of residents along the Puget Sound but they are saving nearly $200,000 annually in fees.

Since 1993 when the airport collected 112 tons, the amount of recycles collected annually has grown to 1,706 tons while solid waste sent to landfills is now only only 1,444 pounds more than it was in 2001.

The recycling rate at the nation’s best practice airport has increased from 9% to 30% in the past decade with a goal of 50% by the end of this year.  This will exceed the 34.5% of municipal solid waste now being recycled nationwide.

Most Americans have now learned to recycle at home.  The challenge is getting them to do so when they are at school, work, shopping, eating out and/or traveling.

Communities such as Durham, where residents have an extraordinary level of pride in their community, are lulled into complacency by resident values.  But 2-out-3 people working here don’t live here and another 9 million annually are visitors.

Studies such as those I have linked in this blog suggest that just as residents are less diligent about recycling away from home, non-residents may be even less so.  Strategies in communities must take the entire street population into account, not just residents.

More than 1-in-4 Americans make no effort to recycle including 1-in-3 Southerners.  Apart from home, 60% of Americans recycle often at work.  But the percentage who rarely or never recycle increases to 35% along town or city streets, 38% when out shopping and over 50% when dining out.

Over 60% of Americans try at least sometimes to recycle when they are traveling, 18% rarely do and nearly 1-in-5 Americans never do.  SEA-TAC has learned that the challenge is not just providing receptacles or making them ubiquitous (as shown in the image above) but also making them obvious.

The ones I see along city streets where I live seem far too subtle.  Even the ones being positioned in the new Diamond View III building that walls off the last remnant of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park from the Durham skyline may still be way too subtle.

SEA-TAC International Airport has found the right balance of integration, aesthetics, placement and communication with its receptacles but its success comes from a strategic commitment to sustainability overall including related infrastructure.

In fact, cities interested in studying this airport as though it were a community could find no better example to visit.

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