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A US airport is the latest place to ban plastic water bottles

It’s just the beginning of fixing the airline waste problem.

Plastic bottles on sale in a supermarket store. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Since the advent of air travel, airlines and airports have provided passengers plastic-wrapped items to be used once and tossed away. Rather than make the switch to sustainable goods and packaging, which tend to be heavier than plastic, the aviation industry has kept at this — and annually generates millions of tons of plastic waste.

In recent years, however, sustainability has grown into a larger talking (and selling) point for customers, who care about green travel options. On Tuesday, the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) started banning plastic water bottles smaller than one liter from being sold at concession stands, lounges, restaurants, or vending machines. It’s the first major airport in the US to issue such a policy, a step toward its goal to be a zero-waste hub by 2021.

Each guest that comes through the airport produces roughly half a pound of trash, an airport spokesperson told CBS News, and around 10,000 bottles of water used to be sold daily. San Francisco International already requires vendors to provide certified compostable utensils, food service accessories, and reusable cups.

As progressive as that sounds, there is a caveat: The plastic bottle policy only applies to water (not other beverages like seltzers, juices, or sodas), and doesn’t affect how airlines independently serve passengers. Airport vendors will still be able to sell water in presumably single-use aluminum and glass containers, which are arguably not much better for the environment.

Plastic water bottles have a notorious reputation in our waste-obsessed world: They’re flimsy, disposable, and most likely won’t be recycled, since research shows that only 9 percent of plastic waste ever generated are reused. They’re also manufactured from petroleum, which is extracted by oil drilling.

While glass and aluminum certainly seem more sustainable (both can be recycled again and again), manufacturing cans and bottles out of these materials, not to mention shipping them, requires lots of fuel, according to Grist’s Umbra Fisk. Completely banning single-use disposables — or even all plastic bottles, in this instance — would be a radical step for the airport, but could lead to a number of problems. It could cause confusion for passengers not aware of the policies, and according to SFO’s spokesperson, there are not enough non-plastic alternatives for teas, juices, or sodas.

Various airports, including SFO, have designed facilities to fit the approving standards of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Last year, LEED updated its list of airport spaces that could be certified, which includes terminals and rental car centers. The Boston Logan International Airport received the honor in 2006 for one of its terminal’s design and construction features, and installed wind turbines and solar panels years later. SFO also received an award for its terminal in 2011.

The move towards eco-friendly design choices might offset the amount of energy required to keep an airport running, but travel hubs still accumulate a lot of waste daily. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, almost 20 percent of an airport’s total municipal solid waste (trash or garbage) comes from deplaned waste after flights.

As Jasmin Malik Chua wrote for Vox about zero-waste flights: “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.”

Curbing inflight waste, then, becomes crucial for any airport looking to achieve zero-waste. But these sustainable initiatives are typically driven by airlines, not the airports themselves.

Chua reported that a United Airlines flight on June 5 offered passengers compostable and recyclable tableware, which reduced its waste from an average 65 pounds to 14. Qantas Airways, an Australian airline, also boasted about its zero-waste flight in May. These efforts are not the norm for airlines, and appear to largely be marketing stunts or events tied to a holiday, like World Environment Day.

In comparison, San Francisco International’s push to completely ban plastic water bottles seems positioned to actually reduce waste. (Now if only it could do the same for plastic Coca-Cola bottles or aluminum La Croix cans!) But conscious change, especially in a space thousands of transient people pass through daily, happens slowly.

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