Monday, July 16, 2012

This story started with a simple question: what happens to a bottle of shampoo surrendered at airport security because it’s too big to carry on? The answer: not so simple.

That’s because there are different regulations for different liquids, and protocols can vary from airport to airport. As a sample, I spoke with the Transportation Security Administration and other authorities at Los Angeles International Airport and other airports around Southern California.

It’s been nearly six years since the TSA banned liquids and gels in containers larger than 3.4 ounces (100 ml) from passing through airport security, in response to an uncovered terrorist plot. Yet, due to time pressure or forgetfulness, travelers continue to pack them in their carry-ons. If the containers can’t be repacked in checked luggage or stored elsewhere for safekeeping, then they must be surrendered to TSA when discovered (which in my experience is usually but not always, but that’s another story).

Most travelers I know hope that their former belongings go to charity, at best. At worst, they suspect that TSA agents get together after each day’s shift to divvy up the spoils.

Actually, no (to my surprise). For starters, liquids surrendered at airports are assumed to be potentially hazardous, and therefore they must be disposed of, so the charity route won’t wash.

At LAX, liquids are sorted by type (shampoo, sunscreen, contact lens solution, hooch, etc.) and transferred to large, blue hazmat barrels with metal seals, in a back room of a TSA facility in a nondescript parking garage near the airport. At smaller airports with smaller volumes, like John Wayne Airport in neighboring Orange County, these liquids might just be tossed in the trash and collected like other refuse.

Barrels are collected for disposal according to environmental regulations. A Boston-area waste management company called Clean Harbors handles the disposal at what spokesman Kent Bartley calls “most of the major airports” nationwide. Clean Harbors typically sends water-based solutions such as toiletries to a waste water treatment facility or a waste energy recovery facility, a.k.a. a trash to steam plant.

Alcoholic beverages are a different category because they’re potentially flammable. Clean Harbors sends them to a fuel-blending facility. So that tequila you picked up at duty-free in Guadalajara might end up powering, for example, a kiln for making cement.

Surely at least the bottles get recycled, I thought. That, too, varies. “Recycling makes more sense with larger numbers of bottles,” says Bartley. “We chip up the plastic and send it to recycling. “For smaller amounts, it doesn’t make much sense,” and the bottles end up in landfills or wherever ordinary trash goes.