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Basically everything you’re given on an airplane is wrapped in plastic. That’s a huge environmental problem.

Air travel generates millions of tons of waste every year. Some airlines are trying to change that.

Airline passengers alone generated 5.7 million tons of waste globally in 2016.
Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

On a recent 15-hour journey from Newark to Hong Kong, I was faced with a parade of single-use disposables. There was the plastic-wrapped blanket and plastic-bagged earbuds, for starters. Then came the plastic-packed “Asian” snack mix, the plastic-lined hot beverage cups, and the plastic cold beverage cups ringed with embossed circles.

The long-haul meals — a five-spice chicken with rice and green beans, scrambled eggs with bits of turkey and a side of seasoned potatoes — stewed in still more plastic, including individual bags for the rolls, miscellaneous containers for the attendant spreads and condiments, and disposable plastic sheaths that swaddled an assemblage of equally disposable plastic flatware. For a mid-flight snack, we were handed a plastic-wrapped cheese sandwich, inexplicably stuffed along with a packet of M&Ms and a paper napkin into a larger plastic bag. A flight attendant insisted on pushing half-size bottles of Dasani — also made of plastic, albeit “partially sourced from plants” — despite my fervent protestations.

By the time I stumbled onto terra firma, sore and bleary-eyed, I was in a green guilt spiral. While the aviation industry is often pilloried for pumping Arctic-melting carbon emissions into the atmosphere, single-use plastics are a growing scourge on the planet. Only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, scientists say. The bulk of it, whether poured into landfills or drifting as litter above ground, frequently ends up in the oceans, a.k.a. the “final sink,” where it remains forever. Dead whales, washed ashore, regularly carry inside them the instruments of our convenience. Microplastics — the result of mismanaged plastic waste tumbled into smaller pieces by the action of waves, sediment, or the sun — have infiltrated the loneliest reaches of the planet, the stomachs of deep-sea creatures, and even the human gut.

But I’m hardly alone in my complicity.

Airline passengers alone generated 5.7 million tons of waste globally in 2016, most of which went to landfills or the incinerator, according to the International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group of some 290 airlines. By 2030, this number is expected to nearly double to an annual 10 million tons.

But nearly 75 percent of inflight waste is recyclable, says the nonprofit Green America, citing statistics from the Natural Resources Defense Council in a 2010 report. In a single year, airlines toss 9,000 tons of plastic, enough aluminum cans to build 58 new Boeing 747s, and enough newspapers and magazines to engulf a football field 230 meters deep. Certainly it doesn’t help that waste management, which involves multiple entities, from catering and ground-handling services to local municipalities, can vary wildly from country to country or even airport to airport.

Airlines aren’t oblivious to the scope of the problem, which is coming into focus with the groundswell of public awareness over plastic pollution. (Hello, viral and not uncontroversial straw ban!) Take, for instance, United Airlines, which flew on June 5 what it billed as the most eco-friendly commercial flight in the “history of aviation.”

Departing from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for LAX on a tankful of aviation biofuel, Flight 310, a.k.a. the “Flight for the Planet,” swapped its standard bagged pretzels for complimentary plated options, including a kale superfood wrap, a Thai summer salad with mango and rice noodles, and an artisanal cheese plate. Passengers chowed down using recyclable or compostable serviceware and imbibed hot drinks from first-of-their-kind recyclable paper cups.

The efforts paid off: Instead of the average 65 pounds of waste generated by a typical United 737 flight, according to a company spokesperson, United managed to pare things down to 14 pounds — all of it garbage brought aboard by passengers, who may or may not have been aware of the scramble behind the scenes.

A month before, the “world’s first zero-waste-to-landfill flight,” courtesy of Australia’s Qantas, sailed from Sydney to Adelaide. Qantas replaced the 1,000-plus single-use plastic items with biodegradable alternatives made from sugarcane and crop starch or, in the case of certain products — like individually packaged milk or Vegemite — removed them altogether. By collecting all leftover items for reuse, recycling, or composting, Qantas crew members reduced the 75 pounds of trash from a typical flight on the route to the contents of a small plastic bag.

These are not, as anyone who has flown anywhere can attest, your typical flights. But they may be a glimpse into the future.

Why airlines are swimming in plastic

Cheap and ubiquitous, plastic serves a practical function. Individual wrapping keeps food fresh and hygienic and makes it easier for security personnel to inspect items like blankets and headsets for signs of tampering. Lightweight, single-use food service items lower onboard weight while keeping the logistical choreography of collecting, washing, and sanitizing dishware to a minimum. Not to mention fine china and silverware serve to delineate the haves (first and business class) from the have-nots (economy).

The sheer scale of air travel today — roughly 4.3 billion passengers flew on scheduled flights in 2018, according to IATA — also makes the idea of swapping disposables for reusables easier said than done. Not only does every ounce on board an aircraft equal more fuel use, says Richard Foss, author of Food In The Air and Space: The Surprising History of Food and Drink in the Skies, but maintaining the correct rotation of supplies on 45 million individual flights every year would also be onerous work.

Plastics make a flight crew’s life easier, but there’s a downside to that convenience.
Getty Images

“If you look at the era in which they were using china on every aircraft, you’re talking about the propeller age, where even the largest craft was still holding fewer than 100 people,” he says. “Now imagine a fully loaded 747 that can hold hundreds of people. With the amount of air travel we have, you would have to have a gigantic dishwashing facility located either on site at the airport or you would have to have semis full of dirty dishes going back and forth.”

Tackling in-flight garbage is complicated, to say the least

While waste management is by and large the responsibility of the airline, much of its success relies on the types of facilities airports provide — or don’t, as the case may be. To wit: For every San Francisco International Airport that has developed pathways for composting and recycling in a bid to become the world’s first zero-waste airport by 2021, there’s a Washington Dulles that takes a more cavalier approach.

Airlines that land at SFO take their onboard waste to one of its 17 material recovery areas, where it mixes with other waste from passengers and businesses in the terminal.

Beyond that, the airport’s influence is limited. “Within the terminals, we’ve been able to move the dial on restaurants using compostable packaging, but we don’t have that ability to require such items on board aircraft,” says Doug Yakel, a public information officer at SFO.

Despite the best intentions, diverting waste from the landfill is easier said than done. Changes have to be systematic; the use of compostable cutlery, for one thing, doesn’t guarantee the cutlery will be composted. “Any solid-waste-management tool only works if there’s a system to manage it,” says Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Not all plastics are created equal, either. Their likelihood of being recycled often boils down to their resin identification code — the tiny triangles with the numbers inside — that indicates what type of plastic an item is made from, and even then, processing facilities can have divergent policies. Not all US municipalities accept polypropylene, or No. 5 plastic, for instance. Because of additives such as dyes, fillers, and flame retardants, even No. 1, PET, the world’s most widely recycled plastic, is only melted and remade into new products at a rate of between 20 and 30 percent, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

“The recycling component, especially for plastics, is highly variable, even from one neighboring community to another,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at NRDC. “I live in Oakland and work in San Francisco, and you can’t put the same things in the recycling bins in those two adjacent cities.”

The challenges of recycling are often further compounded by animal health regulations. Countries with economies largely driven by agriculture, such as Australia, Canada, European member states, and New Zealand, impose strict restrictions on catering waste from overseas flights that “preclude reuse and recycling,” says Jon Godson, assistant director of environment best practices at IATA.

As such, though energy generation is an emerging alternative, a “significant” proportion of cabin waste is incinerated, sterilized, or buried in a landfill. “This also means that cabin waste including food, single-use plastic, and alternative products such as biodegradable crockery and cutlery cannot be donated, reused, or subject to bio-waste treatment such as composting,” Godson adds.

Also muddying the issue? Sweeping rule changes from China that have left many recyclables, including mixed paper and post-consumer plastic, without a major market.

But airlines haven’t given up altogether

Hurdles aside, some airlines are beginning to think outside the single trash bag. Emirates, SAS, and Qantas have instituted onboard recycling facilities to sort aluminum, plastic, glass, and paper products before landing. And in May, Spain’s Iberia, as part of the European Union’s Life Zero Cabin Waste initiative, introduced 500 new trolleys with two-compartment bins to separate packaging and paper-cardboard from other forms of waste.

Government oversight can have its upsides, too. The looming EU-wide ban on single-use plastic, coupled with public pressure over plastic pollution, has spurred airlines to make more ambitious commitments than they might have otherwise. Air France has pledged to replace 210 million single-use plastic items with sustainable versions on all flights by the end of 2019, as has the Portuguese carrier Hi Fly, which in January boasted the world’s first plastic-free flight. In 2018, Ireland’s Ryanair vowed to outlaw plastic as part of a five-year plan to become “the greenest airline.” British Airways is “actively seeking to source non-plastic alternatives where possible.” By 2020, it aims to recycle 50 percent of its waste at its main bases in Heathrow and Gatwick in England.

American airlines have made inroads as well. Last May, Alaska Air announced it was scrapping straws and swapping plastic stirrers and picks for versions made with white birch and bamboo. United took a similar step in September, as did American Airlines, which noted in July that it would offer “plastic alternatives” to flatware and stir sticks in its airport lounges. Delta banned straws, turned to compostable stir sticks, and stopped swaddling its utensils and amenity kits in plastic.

Indeed, any opportunity for reuse or reduction should “take priority” over material substitution, according to Hoover. And opportunities to design out waste abound. Virgin Atlantic sidestepped 13 tons of plastic a year, for example, when it rejiggered its Forest Stewardship Council-certified Change for Children paper donation envelopes to double as headset coverings.

There are other tweaks airlines might consider, such as the pay-as-you-go approach favored by low-cost carriers, so passengers only purchase what they will consume. They could preorder meals to save airlines from gambling on what people may or may not want to eat. Travelers might take matters into their own hands, say, by supplying their own reusable cutlery and stainless steel bottles, or by hanging on to a single cup for the duration of the flight. This may require extra motivation from even the most conscientious of passengers, however.

“A high percentage of us may be recycling at home, but when we go on vacation, if the stewardess doesn’t do it, we’re just like, ‘Oh, well,’” says Epler Wood, who studies traveler behavior as part of her research. “Part of it is we just don’t feel in control. Even I feel like, ‘How am I going to convince the stewardess to fill my water bottle? This is not in her job.’”

Another dilemma for airlines is there “isn’t always a better alternative,” says Christine Boucher, the managing director of global environment, sustainability, and compliance at Delta.

“When you’re looking for a more sustainable alternative, you have to look at the full environmental impact of that alternative,” she says. “Some of these alternatives use more energy to produce them, for example. Is replacing single-use plastic the right choice, or is the right choice recycling that single-use plastic into something else? We’re really looking at a full life-cycle analysis.”

What about climate change?

Some may argue that the issue of cabin waste pales in comparison to aviation’s outsize role in accelerating climate change — rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, perhaps — but Epler Wood is not one of them. “Everything that is happening in my field right now is ballooning in its impacts, be it carbon emissions from aircraft or solid waste from aircraft,” she says. “Tourism and climate change are a very significant global issue and it does relate to both carbon emissions from flights and the supply chains that service those flights. And that includes solid waste.”

Hoover, for one, agrees with her. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, look, there’s one plastic fork here on an airplane. How does that add up to the staggering amounts of fossil fuels that the airline consume as they’re going from place to place?’” she says.

On the other hand, it’s not just one plastic fork. Or just one plastic cup. What if everyone just hung on to their cup for refills instead of getting a new one every time they felt parched?

“Think of how many flights there are and how many people there are on those flights,” Hoover says. “It all starts to add up.”

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