Ensuring an airport’s sustainable operation doesn’t always end at fitting the latest emission-cutting technology. As a handful of pioneering airports have now shown, turning to the natural world can be an equally efficient, inexpensive and uplifting way to cut back on waste and consumption.

By bringing in small herds of goats, burros and llamas, setting up beehives and cultivating their vacant areas, airports manage to avoid the use of toxic pesticides, reduce the risks to their aircraft and drastically cut their overall maintenance costs.

Over the past ten years, a multitude of such initiatives have sprung up at various airports, often in collaboration with non-profit environmental and social organisations or small local businesses.

Chicago O’Hare hosts world’s largest airport apiary

Since 2013, the Chicago Department of Aviation has been using herds of goats, sheep, llamas and burros to clear scrub vegetation at Chicago O’Hare Airport.

Safely separated from the airfield by security fencing, the animals graze on hilly and rocky areas and steep embankments that are difficult to maintain with traditional landscaping equipment.

The airport’s grazing programme has many economic, operational and environmental benefits. Firstly, the grazing helps eliminate habitats for birds and other wildlife that can pose safety hazards for the airport. Moreover, by avoiding the use of motorised mowing equipment or toxic herbicides, costs, air pollution and soil erosion are drastically reduced.

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Alongside their farming initiative, O’Hare also became the first major on-airport apiary in the US, expanding their operation from 28 beehives in 2011 to the current 75. With over one million bees, the apiary at O’Hare is the largest apiary at any airport in the world and during its first year of operation, it produced over 1,200 pounds of honey.

O’Hare also benefits from 338,171 square feet of vegetated green roofs installed at 12 of its facilities. The green roofs were specifically designed not to blow off onto the tarmac.

They retain up to 90% of the precipitation that falls on them during the summer – or two million gallons of storm water annually. This helps double the roofs’ lifespan and, according to the airport’s calculations, helps save $1.5 million in re-roofing costs.

New York’s JFK takes up urban farming

JFK’s unique take on urban farming saw it build the world’s first blue potato farm at an airport.

The 24,000 square foot farm, located on the departures level of Terminal 5, produces approximately 1,000 pounds of blue potatoes each season and about 2,000 herb plants including arugula, beets, mint and basil.

The plants were selected to deter birds and other wildlife coming to the area, and all produce is donated to local food pantries.

According to airline JetBlue who pioneered the project, the farm will also serve as an “agricultural and education resource for the community”. In addition to the potato farm, JetBlue has also opened a post-security outdoor space for JFK travellers.

The airport is also currently working a new project: a $48 million terminal called ‘The ARK’, which is to become the first terminal exclusively dedicated to animals in the US.

Preparing for its opening later this year, the facility will act both as a quarantine and boarding facility, but also a “luxury hotel” for animals and their owners.

Portland International Airport contributes to bee research

Last year, Portland International Airport (PDX) bought 40 goats to graze on invasive plants such as blackberries, thistle and Scotch broom across a 5-acre area near the airfield, as well as one llama whose role is to scare off predators like coyotes.

Much like O’Hare’s project, the goats will replace herbicides and manual labour on the site.

The herd joined the airport’s long-term resident, a Border Collie named Fish who, for the past three years, has been chasing away geese and other pest birds across PDX’s underdeveloped sites.

The dog works Monday to Friday in two shifts of one to two hours each during the peak times of goose activity, shortly after sunrise and immediately before sunset.

Portland Airport also sports its own apiary of 29 beehives, kept primarily for research purposes. The project uses breeding bees adapted to the Pacific Northwest climate and aims to improve the health of local pollinator communities.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport helps protect the honeybee population

In a similar conservation effort, in 2013 Sea-Tac Airport partnered with the Port of Seattle and non-profit The Common Acre on a project called Flight Path – bringing 18 hives with 500,000 honeybees to the airport.

The initiative recognised the dangers of a dwindling honeybee population due to deforestation, urbanisation and agricultural practices, and therefore selected queen bees that would strengthen hive health in the western Washington area.

According to a press release at the time, a pollinator exhibition opened in June 2014 in the airport’s pre-security area, which included paintings, blown glass and a mosaic exploring the importance and contribution of bees to the agriculture and economic sectors.

Singapore’s tropical gardens at Changi Airport

Singapore’s Changi Airport took a more exotic approach, opening the world’s first butterfly garden on its site.

Since 2008, passengers passing through Changi’s Terminal 3 departure lounge have been able to visit the tropical habitat of 1,000 butterflies from over 40 different species native to Singapore and Malaysia, kept in a lush garden complete with a 6-metre grotto-waterfall.

According to the airport’s website, the two-storey open-air garden faces Changi’s airfield and was specifically designed to allow natural air flow, maximising the butterflies’ flight activity.

The airport also houses a sunflower garden, a cactus roof garden with 100 species of cacti and arid plants from the dry areas of Asia, Africa and America, as well as an orchid garden displaying more than 700 orchids from 30 different species.