BLOG: Thinking differently about plastic in the ‘small city’​ of Heathrow


By Heathrow

Published 31st July 2019

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Heathrow’s Sustainability Director, Matt Gorman gives an insight into how passengers and colleagues can think differently about plastic in the ‘small city’​ of Heathrow.

Anyone who lives in an advanced economy like ours is becoming increasingly aware of the harmful effects of single-use plastic and the scale of the plastic problem facing the world.

WWF suggest that without action there could be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

Many of us, as individuals, have guilty consciences and are gradually altering our lifestyles. We’re making greener choices every day. While it’s vital we do so, we also know that our personal impact is tiny.

But with 75,000 staff and 80 million passengers passing through our airport every year, Heathrow can make a real difference. Not just because of the huge numbers of people we welcome every day but because of the unique environment created by being Britain’s only hub airport: we’re like a small city. Our terminals have shops and restaurants and cafes, pharmacies and a medical centre, places of worship, spa treatments, meeting rooms and postal services. A social care team and children’s play areas. The airport is a closed ecosystem where we can adopt a focused and contained approach to plastic waste. When we act, it makes a big difference.

So far, we have trialled a reusable coffee cup scheme in our head offices, which has cut the use of disposable cups by 250,000 per year. Working with over 20 retail and lounge business partners, we’ve switched all the disposable cups used at the airport to a standardised paper version that is easier to recycle. We collected 244,000 cups in 2018, and all of these were recycled at a papermill in the Lake District and used to create new stationery products. We’ve also trialled different types of collection bins to understand how we can make recycling as easy as possible for passengers.

Similarly, we’re working towards the removal of single-use plastic bottles, straws and stirrers. Last year we installed new equipment at the airport that pierces and empties plastic bottles, making it easier to recycle them. An extra 2 million plastic bottles were recycled in 2018 as a result. We’ve worked with 95% of our retail shops and helped them stop using plastic stirrers and straws. More than one hundred refill stations have also been installed throughout the airport to encourage passengers and staff to refill their water bottles free of charge, in support of the global Refill movement.

Being a ‘small city’ helps us to be even more ambitious in our thinking. For example, our passengers come from all over the world and speak hundreds of languages. The way they think and feel about plastic waste – or what they know and understand – varies enormously. That gives us the opportunity to educate and inform. So, we’re looking at how we might use holograms at waste bins with multi-lingual messaging to explain how to recycle at Heathrow.

And now that we’re coming to the end of Plastic Free July, what better time to reflect on what’s next and what more can be done?

Well, a £50 million investment in computed tomography scanner technology is set to transform how passengers experience security, a process which for so long has been synonymous with clear plastic bags. Heathrow was the first airport to install the technology in 2017, and the development should see changes take effect from 2022, when passengers will no longer be required to keep liquids in plastic; speeding up the security process and reducing tonnes of plastic waste.

Elsewhere, our Centre of Excellence for Sustainability is finding creative solutions to the plastic problem. A recent winner of our Colleague Innovation Prize proposed using the airport’s plastic waste for its road resurfacing, an idea which is now being researched by our partners at the University of Surrey to later be trialled on site. Solving complex sustainability problems with creative solutions is vital to our success, and these initiatives stimulate further thinking.

Our retailers are also fundamental to this, and I urge the businesses who operate in our airport to join us and our passengers in doing more. Many of Heathrow’s retailers including Costa, Nero and Starbucks are increasing usage of reusable cups in all their stores and offering discounts to allow passengers the opportunity to make better choices. We doff our caps to the likes of Pret a Manger who are listed on Refill, and have partnered with Chilly’s to offer customers reusable bottles across all its UK stores.

Let me be clear though, we still have a long way to go. We only need to look to Dubai Airport where they’ve committed to banning single-use plastics entirely from 2020, to know we must continue to strive if we want to be held up as the gold standard on plastic waste.

The UK is increasingly passionate about this issue and that’s making it easier to do more. People want to see an end to single-use plastics, sooner rather than later.

Heathrow is Britain’s front door, and first impressions are formed here. The airport should capture the essence of who we are as a nation. Britain cares about plastic, so we do too.


By Heathrow

Published 31st July 2019