Local News
6:12 pm
Tue December 11, 2012

Millions Of Worms Eat, Compost Charlotte Airport's Trash

Millions of people will pass through airports this holiday season, tossing trash into cans that will combine with waste from restaurants and airlines into a mess. Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is now the first in the nation to put worms to work dealing with its waste.  WFAE's Julie Rose got an inside look at the process – and the man behind it.

Bob Lucas is not about to judge you for tossing that plastic bottle in the trash as you board your flight.

"I mean, I'm the world's worst recycling at home," admits Lucas. "But I'm on top of it here. Which makes no sense."

And it really doesn't make sense that Lucas – who's an electrician by trade – managed to launch one of the most comprehensive on-site recycling and composting programs of any airport in the nation. He's the Charlotte airport housekeeping manager responsible for clean bathrooms and trash removal.

"I've learned a lot in the last three years - the internet's wonderful," chuckles Lucas.

Yes, the internet is where Lucas got the wild idea that's become reality in old warehouse at the airport. No we'll get to the wild part, but first, let's stop at the conveyor belt where 25 tons of trash a day come pouring in from all over the airport.   

It cascades down like a waterfall, which makes it easier for a dozen employees to pick out recyclables so passengers don't have to do the sorting in the terminal. 

The recyclables are crushed, baled and sold for cash. In four months, the airport's made about $68,000, which it split evenly with a private company hired to run the facility. But the real value of the operation is in the savings, says Lucas.

The airport spends close to a million dollars a year on landfill fees and waste hauling. But since Lucas got his program up and running, trash going from the airport to the landfill is down 70 percent. That's better than just about any other airport, anywhere.

And it's offered some surprising lessons.  

"Clothes and cups- those were the biggest shocks," says Lucas.

Clothes?

"A passenger goes to the ticket counter and they find out their bag's two pounds overweight, they'll throw a shirt or two away," rather than pay the extra fee, says Lucas. 

Ladies from a local church to launder the clothes and donate them to charity.  

The cup conundrum has been a bit tougher to solve. Lucas points to a bin next to the trash conveyor belt that is piled high with whole sleeves of those clear plastic cups you get with your soda on the plane.

"U.S. Airways will use two or three cups out of that sleeve and throw the rest of the sleeve away - so you see how many cups that (are) getting wasted," says Lucas. " I've met with in-flight service to see if they can correct that on their end - to not be so wasteful."

Lucas had a similar conversation with the airlines about a shocking number of airplane blankets that end up in the trash, rather than being laundered and reused.

Once all the recyclable and re-useable stuff is pulled out, the organic goop goes into a giant mixer: Waste from airport restaurants, food scraps off planes and the half-eaten Cinnabon you toss out. It all rots in a closed tank for a few days to start the composting process. Then it's time for the stars of this show.

Lucas digs his fingers into the top layer of a 50-foot-long composting bin.

"There's the workers - 1.9million of them - your (regular) backyard red wigglers," he says, proudly.

The worms are about three inches long and a quarter-inch around.  But can they eat.

"They eat half their weight a day," says Lucas.

Charlotte is the first airport in the nation – if not the world – using worms to compost 100 percent of its organic waste.  It's an outlandish undertaking other airports are watching with interest.

Worms can be finicky and - Lucas recently learned - prone to crawling out en-masse when the barometric pressure changes.  He made a panicked call to the guy who sold him the worms.

"First thing I told him, 'They're trying to leave!'" recalls Lucas. "And he said, 'Get a light and stick it under the bed.' And they just turn around and go back in and they're happy."

Crisis averted. And if Lucas can keep the worms happy, they'll soon be producing enough castings to fertilize all of the airport grounds.

"Castings is worm poop," explains Lucas. 

Ahh worm poop: The thing that has reduced many a room to chuckles since Lucas began describing his plans last year.

But at a recent meeting of the Airport's Advisory Committee, Aviation Director Jerry Orr made clear he's taking the whole thing very seriously. The airport spent $1.2 million to set-up the recycling and worm-composting operation.  He expects it to be turning a profit in five years.