Nearly 150 airplanes coming from foreign countries land at Chicago Rockford International Airport each year. The trash from those planes used to have an even longer journey. To meet federal requirements, trucks had to ship international garbage to a sterilization facility in Indianapolis after every flight. But for more than a year, Rockton company Clean Earth Pet Systems has done the job instead. 

Nearly 150 airplanes from foreign countries land at Chicago Rockford International Airport each year.

The trash from those planes used to have an even longer journey.

To meet federal requirements, trucks had to ship international garbage to a sterilization facility in Indianapolis after every flight.

But for more than a year, Rockton company Clean Earth Pet Systems has done the job instead. That’s made it easier for the airport’s one international airline and could help bring others.

“That rubbish removal equated to a significant fee that would be passed on to the airline. ... It could be $1,000 or more per flight,” said Franz Olson, the airport’s deputy director of operations and facilities. “It was difficult for the Rockford airport to be attractive to host international carriers and for international carriers to make any money here.”

Charter operator Ryan International Airlines lands from 100 to 150 international flights here a year, mostly bringing back U.S. troops from overseas duty. Each time a plane lands, food, paper and other trash must be unloaded and processed, all of it heavily regulated.

“International garbage has the potential to have bug infestations or bacteria contamination brought from one continent to another,” said Tom Carroll, owner of Clean Earth Pet Systems. “These types of services are the first line of defense.”

Carroll uses a pair of autoclaves, large machines that steam the waste at high temperatures, to kill any contaminants. They can process 1,000 pounds an hour.

Carroll’s business has been operating on Gleasman Road for a few years, mostly handling veterinary waste and U.S. Department of Agriculture-regulated waste. Airport garbage has been about 20 percent of his business so far.

Airport officials helped him get the permits to handle airline waste.

The airport used to burn international waste years ago, but when it closed its incinerator it started shipping waste to the nearest facility, which was in Indianapolis.

For Ryan, it’s very convenient, said Bill Curry, the airline’s director of ground operations.

Sometimes, it flies nearly empty planes here just to bring crews home. But because of federal requirements, it would have to ship the minuscule amount of waste in a truck rather than wait for it to pile up.

“Obviously, taking things to Indianapolis was a little crazy,” he said. “It does cut costs for us, mostly for the number of trips we would have to take to Indianapolis.”

Olson said the savings to international carriers could help Rockford get regularly scheduled service for overseas destinations. Right now, only Apple Vacations offers such service, with its weekly winter trips to Cancun, Mexico.

This is part of an overall plan to make the airport more attractive to carriers.

Crews are wrapping up an expansion to the international arrival gate in time for the winter flights. There’s also a catering company with operations at the airport, now mostly for Ryan International, that could work for future carriers.

“We’re just adding more amenities that other larger airports have,” Olson said. “We’re giving an airline another reason to do business here.”

Thomas V. Bona can be reached at (815) 987-1343 or tbona@rrstar.com.