From waste to electricity: How Gatwick Airport is approaching sustainability

- Leadership - May 26, 2017

“My job is to drive and monitor the airport’s progress toward its publicly stated aim of becoming the UK’s most sustainable airport and one of the greenest in the world,” declares Rachel Thompson, Sustainability Manager at London Gatwick.  

No mean task – airports are notorious consumers of resources and are regularly in the public eye regarding issues such as noise and air pollution. It is also no secret that Gatwick is at loggerheads with the UK Government and rival Heathrow in what has become a long running second runway saga.

However, second runway or not, Thompson is in charge of ensuring current and future operations meet the highest sustainable standards, set out in 10 key principles to achieve by 2020.

A Category 1 conundrum

One of these targets revolves around waste. “Gatwick currently generates around 10,500 tonnes of waste each year,” says Thompson. “Approximately 20 percent of this is Category 1 waste and the new plant can process around 10 tonnes of it a day.”

Thompson is referring to a new waste management system that has been installed by DHL Supply Chain, able to convert waste from on flight food and packaging into energy. “100 percent of the energy goes back into the facility,” she continues, “with 60-70 percent used to dry the waste for the next day and the remaining heating the site. Designs are also currently being drawn up for additional energy generated to heat the North Terminal building. In total the new plant can generate 1MW of renewable energy a day, and we estimate that every day the plant runs, it saves Gatwick over £1000 in energy costs.”

A change in regulation has allowed category 1 waste to be processed onsite, where beforehand it had to be handled away from airports in order to prevent any spread of infectious material.

Thompson adds: “Gatwick was keen to find a better solution to this problem and worked closely with DHL to work through the complex regulations that apply to the disposal of category 1 waste. The advantages of managing our waste onsite are numerous and go beyond energy generation. Water recovered from drying is used to clean bins, saving two million litres of water, and ash recovered from the boiler can be used to make low carbon concrete.”

Processing waste onsite will also result in 50 percent fewer lorry journeys to external waste plants, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. The plant also includes a waste sorting centre in a bid to maximise recycling rates – it is predicted that Gatwick will achieve an 85 percent rate by 2020, well above its stated 2020 target and a significant improvement on the current 50 percent rate.

The amount of category 1 waste arriving at the new facility is also being cut down thanks to a new labelling system deployed with airline cleaning companies. This has allowed cleaning staff to identify EU/CAT 3 waste which otherwise would have been sent as category 1. “Although a simple process, this took nearly a year of trails before gaining approval from DEFRA and other relevant authorities,” Thompson states. “We believe are the only airport in the UK to achieve this.”

Beyond waste  

Cutting carbon is another area which has seen notable achievements over the past 18 months. “Last year we became one of only a handful of organisations to simultaneously hold triple certification to the Carbon Trust Standard for reducing carbon, water use and waste management,” Thompson explains.

“Gatwick Airport Ltd also hopes to be certified carbon neutral this spring. A significant factor in achieving carbon neutrality is Gatwick’s purchase of 100 percent certified renewable electricity since 2013. We are also the first Airport in the world to have joined the RE100 coalition, a corporate leadership programme aiming to accelerate moves to a low carbon economy.”

In another UK first, Gatwick has also introduced an electric and hybrid taxi agreement, helping to cut emissions created by ferrying passengers from terminals to aircraft, and vice versa, by 75 percent. A 100 percent electric car sharing service is also on the cards.

A sound approach

When asked what some of the challenges of implementing sustainable projects at airports are, Thompson highlights the issue of noise.

“We commissioned an industry leading review to alleviate problems local communities reported in relation to noise from arriving aircraft,” she explains. “One year on, eleven of 23 recommendations from have been completed.” 

“To demonstrate the impact of just one: More than half Gatwick flights use Airbus A320s but they make a whining noise on approach. Following the review, four of the five largest operators – accounting for 90 percent of A320s – expect to modify their entire fleets by end of 2017. Gatwick will also impose higher charges to A320s not modified from January 2018.”

This in an important marker laid down, for the amount of aircraft taking off and landing at Gatwick has increased markedly since 2010 - in the space of six years annual passenger numbers have increased from 31 to 43 million. Yet Gatwick’s environmental footprint today – for carbon, energy, water and waste – is broadly the same as in 2010, making this growth close to neutral environmentally. Come 2020, the numbers may look even more positive.

To see the full feature with Gatwick Airport's 10 major sustainability targets, read the June edition of Business Review Europe


Like what you see! Signup for our weekly newsletter