An academic approach to reducing Portland airport waste

Just steps from the loud whir of commuter aircraft propellers, John Dea and his fellow PSU students help Portland International Airport (PDX) staff dispose of the 11 tons of waste generated each day while keeping as much of it as they can out of landfills. 

“It gets loud down here,” says Dea, a PSU Graduate School of Education grad student who wears earplugs to drown out jet engines’ roar. “But the dirty work of waste minimization is important.”

Dea is getting hands-on experience from Community Environmental Services (CES), a research and service program of the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA), that has collaborated with the airport’s operator, the Port of Portland, for 15 years to find sustainable solutions for PDX’s waste. 

This month, the Port and PSU are celebrating the anniversary of their partnership on the Waste Minimization Project, which has saved nearly a third of the airport’s waste from going into landfills since 2003. The green results from this project have helped Portland International Airport win kudos as the best domestic airport in the United States in each of the last five years. 

“The waste minimization work we’ve done with the Port of Portland for the past 15 years has been a real win-win for both organizations,” says Christa McDermott, director of CES at Portland State.  “It’s also helped define the leading edge of what’s being done to reduce waste at airports nationally.”

Portland State students take the lead on projects, designing posters that encourage recycling, spending time on the front lines separating materials for recycling and reuse and conducting food waste studies at PDX.  

The partnership between CES students and Port officials has produced many innovative airport waste minimization programs, including: 

  • Beverage Collection Stations — allows passengers to empty liquids from water bottles and other containers before passing through security. The project initially saved the Port $30,000 in annual labor costs by reducing the number of times janitors had to empty garbage stations.
  • Food Waste Program — keeps food waste from going into landfills. A food composting program was created that analyzes waste streams and provides rewards to employees who use the green food waste bins. 20 tons of food waste per month are composted at the airport.
  • Green Durable Plates for Dine In — a pilot program that provided reusable plates to food vendors and helped them reduce the use of to-go containers. It helped reduce waste from to-go packaging by 73 percent. Every PDX food vendor participating in the program said they would highly recommend that it continue beyond the pilot phase.

By collaborating on these airport innovations and working on other projects, PSU students have learned valuable career skills that will benefit them whether or not they choose to pursue professional opportunities in waste minimization down the road.  

“We’ve done research.  We’ve done relationship building.  We’ve done a lot of engagement with different aspects of the airport experience,” says Monica Fleisher, a PSU graduate student in Leadership for Sustainability Education Program in the Graduate School of Education and CES participant. “But all the while we’re increasing and enhancing the experience of passengers at PDX.”

For Stan Jones, Port of Portland’s senior manager for land quality and one of the founders of the CES and Port collaboration, teaching the students lifelong skills that they’ll take into whatever field they choose is the real benefit of the program.  

“Not surprisingly, most of our students come into the program working and communicating in an academic way,” says Jones. ”Coming to this work environment forces them to think of ways to present their content for a variety of audiences — not just other researchers — including Port leadership, food service workers, passengers and more.  These are lifelong skills they’ll take with them wherever they go.”

Story by Kurt Bedell
Video by Peter Simon

Front page caption: CES team members John Dea, Quyen Pham, Hakan Kutgun and Monica Fleisher.