Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines has launched a comprehensive in-flight organics recycling program, making it perhaps the first airline in the nation to start composting onboard food waste in addition to recycling cans and bottles.

And the company is doing it with the help of nearly $35,000 in environmental funding from Hennepin and Dakota counties.

“It’s unique and it’s a big endeavor for them,” said Andre Xiong, a recycling specialist at Hennepin County.

Until now, Sun Country has recycled only paper and cardboard. Now flight attendants will recycle passengers’ cans, bottles and juice cartons, while leftover food, napkins and discarded coffee cups and grounds will end up at metro area composting sites to be sold as dirt for gardens or roads.

The full program started at Sun Country’s buildings and on domestic flights this month.

A report by a recycling advocacy group said that as of 2010, 250 million tons of waste were generated on U.S. flights and yet no major airline had a comprehensive program to reduce food waste.

Since then, more airlines have pushed to go green. Alaska Airlines announced last spring it would start composting coffee grounds. JetBlue started composting at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, though it doesn’t collect compost onboard. Other airlines such as Delta recycle plastic, aluminum and paper on some flights.

“As the hometown airline, we feel responsible to be good corporate partners,” said Eric Curry, executive vice president of customer experience and sales. “As we continue to grow and develop at Sun Country, we’re looking at all phases of our operations that we can do better.”

Curry said that company officials anticipate the new program will significantly cut into trash amounts. The airline says the program is part of a broader initiative dubbed “Soaring to Sustainability.”

Increasing organics recycling

Sun Country is based in Mendota Heights, which is in Dakota County, but keeps hangars and other buildings at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Hennepin County.

The airline applied for and received a $24,600 grant from Hennepin County last spring to boost recycling on airplanes and in office buildings at the airport. About the same time, Dakota County gave the airline $10,000 drawn from its business recycling incentive program started this year.

The public funding covers Sun Country’s costs for a start-up supply of compostable bags, organics and recycling bins and the first three months of organics recycling hauling. While Curry said the company didn’t need the counties’ money, their programs helped lay out guidelines for the airline’s recycling plans.

“We wanted to go a little further in our recycling efforts,” he said, adding that the idea for the new program came from Sun Country employees.

Organics recycling has significantly increased in the last few years at MSP. All concessions at both terminals have collected food waste for composting since 2015. The total amount of organic waste has grown from 40 tons in 2010 to 466 tons in 2015, according to spokesman Patrick Hogan of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

Counties start new efforts

The state wants the metro area to recycle 75 percent of its waste by 2030, so counties are ramping up recycling efforts.

When Dakota County launched its business recycling incentive program in August, Sun Country was one of the first businesses to apply. So far, 15 businesses have implemented programs.

Hennepin County, the first county in the metro area to start a business recycling program, has awarded $475,000 in recycling grants to 49 businesses and nonprofits since 2013. The county is offering funding incentives to cities to start curbside organics recycling to shift the focus to food waste, the biggest single item residents throw away that could instead be recycled.

The business program aims to bump up recycling in the commercial sector, which generates more than half the total waste in Hennepin County. Nearly two-thirds of waste created at businesses is recyclable.

From churches to hospitals and nonprofits, businesses can get up to $10,000 for recycling containers or up to $50,000 for large and innovative projects. Besides Sun Country, other recipients in 2016 included Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Whole Foods in Edina and Boston Scientific in Maple Grove.

Xiong said the county picked Sun Country’s application not just because it will help decrease trash in metro area landfills and start organics recycling for the airline, but because it could help spread the word about organics recycling to thousands of the airline’s passengers.

“That’s really the big, big picture of this,” he said. “Passengers from around the world could be impacted.”


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