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Heathrow Airport trial could see passenger plastic waste upcycled for jet fuel

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Heathrow Airport is set to trial new technology that will convert unrecyclable passenger waste into airport furniture, uniforms and alternative fuels.

A new recycling unit that could process up to 5,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic is being tested by Heathrow Airport, which could eventually enable the recycling of 100 per cent of on-airport plastic waste.

Research teams are aiming to make the technology commercially viable by 2025. Heathrow currently recycles close to 50 per cent of airport and aircraft cabin waste.

This is comparable with most local authorities despite the strict regulations in place for cabin waste from international flights, which mean most of that waste must be sent for incineration or to landfill.

The pilot plant, developed by Heathrow’s Innovation Prize winners Sheffield-based company Catal and Dr Massimiliano Materazzi from UCL, has the potential to save up to 5,000 tonnes of waste from incineration by turning it into its original oil state for recycling every year.

Once the waste is refined using the new technology, the resulting oil will be collected and processed in a separate facility which makes use of renewable hydrogen to upgrade the oil into new-generation, low-carbon products such as furniture and uniforms.

It is estimated that between 5 and 8kg of plastics oil will be produced for every 10kg of waste handled each hour. Researchers say it’s also possible that this oil can be transformed into Jet A1-type sustainable fuel.

If successful, this strategy will enable Heathrow to recycle all plastic waste from the airport, where regulations permit. It also said the technology could help salvage aircraft cabin waste if the government adopts a more “risk-based approach” to regulations for waste from international flights. The regulations currently mean tens of thousands of tonnes of potentially recyclable products across UK airports have to be sent for incineration.

Matt Gorman, Heathrow's sustainability and environment director, said: “People are rightly concerned about plastic waste. Tens of thousands of tonnes of it are produced by UK air passengers every year, which is something we must tackle.

“That’s why we’re helping to fund this R&D project which could make Heathrow the first UK airport to be able to recycle all plastic waste generated at the airport.”

Dr Materazzi said: “Airline passengers alone generate approximately 6m metric tonnes of waste each year, most of which goes to landfill or incineration because it cannot be appropriately treated and then recycled. Our concept has the potential to turn this problem on its head.”

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