Atlanta Airport Has High-Tech ‘Flight Plan’ for Food Waste: Q&A with Liza Milagro

by | Aug 30, 2019

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The quest to serve hungry travelers fresh food at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport used to produce tons of waste, literally.

At the time, Georgia only had two compost facilities. One was 110 miles away from the airport. The other was 80 miles in the other direction. Bread baked every few hours has a short sales window. Entire uneaten meals from concessionaires went straight into the trash.

“When you’re doing a waste characterization audit and you see a 100-pound bag of bagels, that just hurts your heart,” says Liza Milagro, resilience and sustainability manager for the world’s busiest airport. “I had to figure this out.”

Milagro’s energetic focus on zero waste led to the airport’s collaboration with food waste management company GoodR (pronounced “gooder,” as in “do-gooder”) on the Food Heroes Program, which won an Environmental Leader Project Award in May. She also became a 2019 Environment + Energy Leader 100 honoree for making significant strides in the industry.

Recently we caught up with her to find out how the high-tech Food Heroes Program came together, and the benefits it delivers.

What was the impetus for the Food Heroes Program?

We had to find a creative way to start removing organics from our stream while we were working on Green Acres, an onsite facility to process our recyclables and compostables. I thought, we have grease, e-waste, waste, and recycling haulers. Let’s separate this from the landfill stream and haul it somewhere else.

I noticed that the concessionaire HMSHost had a national program, and started getting data from them. They had diverted almost 17,000 pounds. If they could do that, what could we do collectively? But I have to have emissions metrics that show what diversion means so passengers would be responsive: cars off the road, homes powered, trees planted.

When GoodR presented themselves, no one was capturing metrics like this. I went to the concessions group and said I’d identified a potential solution for recoverable edible food waste. Delaware North jumped on it immediately and that’s how we identified our partner for the beta. I was clear from the beginning that I wanted the food to support veterans, seniors, and children, so that established our demographic.

What were the main factors you had to consider?

One question was how to upload all the product options available. The concessionaires have national and local teams, but they don’t have the bandwidth. We had started working with a company called Grab that allows passengers to order food in advance. The CEO of Grab, the CEO of GoodR, the general manager for Delaware North, and myself — we worked through the logistics. Grab had already started cataloging menu options, making it easier for us.

Another was doing collections in a way that did not interrupt operations. Flights are departing and arriving every 45 seconds, and space is at a premium. Concessionaires have a 12-hour expiration period on the food. How are we going to organize the leftovers? Where are they going to be stored? How are they going to get carried out of the terminals? We can’t just have aluminum pans on a dolly.

How did you overcome these challenges?

It starts with a team of people that believe in the purpose. We all wanted to reduce our waste stream. What GoodR presented was a great start, but in working with us, their platform evolved. And then having a concessionaire like Delaware North that was so accommodating with their information took some of the burden off.

Sustainability, to me, is pushing the envelope of excellence. Let’s develop a checklist and go through each item that can improve the program. We have to look at every side.

What’s the case for concessionaire participation?

A misnomer is, “I can’t give this food away because I’m liable.” A lot of people don’t know about the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996. You’re not giving it away. You’re giving it to a hauler and the hauler is giving it away.

So I said, “Just try it.” You’ll get up to 30% of the retail value of the food as a tax write-off. I took the heavy lifting off the concessionaires. In the app, they click on the menu items to collect and each menu item has a price associated with it. Then they click on the time when they would like the pickup, like Uber for food recovery. By the time the GoodR team comes to pick up the food, the data is automatically populated.

The program allows the participants to manage their supply chains better. For us, we’re able to pull organics from the stream. Some would say, “Just compost it all,” but they’re good meals. Passengers were buying them an hour or two before.

What are your results so far?

We have provided over 200,000 meals to the under-served in Atlanta. We increased our landfill diversion by about 215,000 pounds, we reduced our emissions by about 190,000 pounds, and we created over $1 million in tax savings collectively.

If we can do it at the world’s busiest airport, then communities can do it. No one is losing with this program. Organizations that need to achieve zero waste, this is low-hanging fruit. Restaurants that want tax write-offs, here you go.

Any other benefits you’ve observed?

What we found was that it made employees excited to be responsible for making sure the food didn’t go in the trash. Then you see the level of gratitude from program directors overseeing the shelters when it gets delivered, and the graciousness of the recipients. You hear their stories.

You know that you’re a part of something bigger than zero waste. That is social, economic, and environmental responsibility at its finest.

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