Hartsfield-Jackson’s green dreams meet reality

12:21 p.m Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016 Business
Bob Andres
Liza Milagro, the airport’s senior sustainability leader, at the site of the future Green Acres airport composting and recycling facility. The project has been on the drawing board for years but has been slowed by contracting issues. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Officials at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for years have pursued an unusual goal: To build a first-of-its-kind recycling and composting facility on airport grounds.

It’s the linchpin in a lofty ambition: To make the world’s busiest airport — home to tens of thousands of cars and shuttles and thousands of jet aircraft taking off and landing daily — also a leading “green” airport.

“I want Hartsfeld-Jackson to be one of the most sustainable airports in America,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said of the city-run airport.

Finding a business to take on the project, dubbed Green Acres ATL Energy Park, has turned into a case of good intentions flying headlong into reality, however.

Airport officials recently launched their fourth attempt to find a company to develop and operate a facility on a plot of land on the south side of the airfield. The first attempt was canceled to revise the requirements. The second yielded no qualified responses. The third was canceled due to incorrectly-completed forms submitted by firms competing for the project.

“I think it’s been challenging because we’re being very demanding and we’re not going to really settle for a mediocre approach to sustainability,” Reed said.

The facility would handle a mountain of recyclables and food waste generated daily by the airport’s restaurants, stores and other operations, as well as possibly from other sources. It would be up to the business running it to figure how to make a profit by selling compost or recyclables.

The idea of greening up a major airport isn’t new.

Chicago’s O’Hare, for instance, has an on-airport apiary with more than 1 million bees, along with composting and recycling programs and an annual aviation industry forum on sustainability.

“When you look at other competitive airports, like Chicago O’Hare for example, they’re focused on sustainability, and customers care about it,” Reed said. “And I think the city of Atlanta should lead in this regard. We all have a responsibility at the end of the day to work to cool our planet.”

At this point, however, Green Acres looks unlikely to be completed before Reed’s term ends after 2017.

The goals of Green Acres are particularly ambitious: The idea is to not just compost and recycle waste, but also to become a model for the industry, complete with a flashy education center that students and researchers can visit.

“These are things that are done in California. These are things that are done in New York,” said Liza Milagro, Hartsfield-Jackson’s senior sustainability planner, who manages the Green Acres project. “You don’t get to experience this type of innovation south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

Green Acres, she said, can advance the city’s zero-waste goals by servicing restaurants, schools and other institutions.

There are myriad challenges and roadblocks to launching a new composting and recycling facility for the airport, evidenced by the fact that there is no other commercial composting facility in the city, and a previous attempt to operate an airport recycling facility failed.

“It’s no easy feat to get the logistics together to do all of the collection, the sorting, and getting everything so you can get a contaminant-free stream” for composting and recycling, said Holly Elmore, CEO of Atlanta-based sustainability nonprofit Elemental Impact.

Green Acres would be covered because traditional outdoor composting piles could attract birds that are hazardous to planes, and the facility will need Federal Aviation Administration approval. An indoor facility is more expensive and complex, but reduces the risk of birds, as well as odors and residents’ complaints.

The state-of-the-art facility envisioned by airport officials will require substantial investment from the company involved, which would be locked into a 30-year lease.

Those factors combine to make it a big leap for a contractor to invest, develop and build the facility. The public-private partnership the airport seeks puts the risk of failure on the contractor, rather than on the airport.

“When this process started three years ago, we talked about the option of doing an airport-run facility,” said Michael Cheyne, the airport’s director of asset management and sustainability. He said the airport determined that the private sector is “not only better financed but [has] the expertise” to market the facility.

A Charlotte airport recycling facility with a worm composting farm ran into troubles including cost overruns, equipment malfunctions, problems with the contractor operating it and lack of profitability, according to media reports. Charlotte Douglas International Airport said its recycling program is now “in transition,” and is being folded into the city’s recycling program.

“There’s an opportunity to use the Charlotte facility and other facilities’ successes and failures as lessons learned,” Milagro said.

Reed said he thinks the issue with Green Acres is less about the feasibility of the project, and “more a matter of will.”

“I think a lot of the challenges that relate to the Green Acres initiative have to do with the lack of focus and priority,” he said. “Running the airport is a very complicated task and when you have the number of projects that are ongoing at Hartsfield-Jackson, projects related to sustainability can be pushed aside or deprioritized.”

While Green Acres has struggled to launch, Hartsfield-Jackson has been recycling just a fraction of the waste generated by the hundreds of thousands of passengers and tens of thousands of workers that occupy the airport on a daily basis. It struggled with earlier efforts on single-stream recycling, and it also must wrangle with a wide array of concessionaires, airlines and other airport businesses to get them to get on board with a recycling and composting program. That can include getting them to change the types of plates, cups and utensils they use.

Without an on-site facility, the airport’s years-old goal to compost food waste from airport restaurants and food courts has gone unmet. A private composting facility is in the works in Conyers, but that’s still too far, according to Milagro.

Some concessionaires have made efforts. HMSHost brought in a special trash compactor to recycle milk containers from the airport’s Starbucks.

But to reach the airport’s goal of zero-waste status by 2020 requires more airport businesses and more recycling and composting capacity.

Cheyne believes the effort will pay off with “a benchmark for others to look at, for how to deal with waste from airports.”

“I wish we had been where we are a year ago, and the thing would already be under construction,” Cheyne acknowledged.

He attributed the failure of the last round of contracting to bureaucracy, but says the project remains feasible. Responses to the latest request for proposal are due Dec. 7, with a contract award possible in 2017.

“We’re going to get there,” Cheyne said. “There is no question in my mind.”

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