Plastic airport waste could become jet fuel

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The airline industry is working hard to become more environmentally-friendly and to shed its earlier image of being a net polluter. Much has been made of efforts to begin incorporating specialist bio-fuels into aeroplane fuel mixes and efforts to operate greener airlines and airports on the ground. The latest good piece of news comes in the form of plastic recycling, with the prospect of tonnes of airport waste eventually being transformed into jet fuel and other vital airline products rather than heading to landfill.

The problem

Airports and airlines produce vast amounts of plastic waste, from coffee cups consumed in waiting areas and fast-food wrappers through to food service materials on-board, duty-free carrier bags and general travel waste ending up in airport bins.

An exciting and high-tech solution

Heathrow Airport has responded to the problem and is preparing to pioneer a new technology that will transform previously non-recyclable plastic waste into alternative fuels as well as staff uniforms and even airport furniture.

The new recycling unit will be processing up to 5,000 tonnes of plastic which would otherwise be heading to landfill. The hope is that it will eventually allow Heathrow to recycle 100% of its plastic waste, gathered at site.

The technology is currently being developed by a team of researchers who hope to make it commercially viable by 2025. Currently, the airport recycles up to half of its plastic waste from airport ground operations and aircraft cabins.

This current achievement is in line with the majority of local authorities and comes in the face of strict legislation for cabin waste, which dictates that most must be sent to landfill or incinerated.

The new pilot plant, created by Catal and Dr Massimiliano Materazzi from UCL, will transform the plastic into its original state of oil. Once this oil has been collected, it will be sent for processing off-site, creating renewable hydrogen which can then create low-carbon, next-generation products such as clean fuel, staff uniforms and airport furniture.

The estimate is that up to 8kg of oil will be recovered from every 10kg of plastic waste handled. If successful, Heathrow will roll out the pilot into a commercially viable system to recycle all of its plastic waste, in line with regulations. It will also seek to recycle more cabin waste if the Government allows changes to regulations that otherwise force rubbish from international flights into landfill.

Heathrow’s spokesperson said that passengers and employees were concerned about plastic waste, with UK airline operations producing many tens of thousands of tonnes each year. He added that the R&D funding provided to take the project forward looked set to make Heathrow the first British airport to be able to recycle 100% of its airport generated waste. This will tackle a long-running problem and turn it on its head by extracting value and fresh life out of what was originally waste.

Combined with other measures across the airport to reduce waste, recycle and encourage less wasteful consumption, Heathrow is leading the way in becoming a greener operation.

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