Most of us, in this day and age of environmental awareness, have taken personal strides toward recycling and conservation. Many of us would never dream of throwing a plastic bottle in our kitchen trash bin. We bring reusable bags to the store. Many others eschew cars for bikes and mass transit in cities. But as much as we try to reduce our impact on the planet, air travel leaves a lot to be desired not only for emissions, but in the waste management area.
In 2010, environmental non-profit Green America published an eye-opening report detailing the need for increased recycling and waste reduction efforts across the airline industry. In it, American and British air carriers were given letter grades on their performance, with most earning a grade C or lower. The study highlighted the need to reduce packaging and other onboard waste, as well as expand recycling programs to include more items such as plastic cups, trays, magazines and other items.
The study sent a huge wake-up call to airlines and passengers alike, and over the last seven years, most of the major airlines have changed procedures to help reduce what they can. Alaska claims now to send 70% of recyclable materials to be processed as such, while JetBlue has started composting food waste at JFK airport. American and Delta not only collect aluminum cans to recycle, but the proceeds collected from them are used for charities. While this is all heartening to read about, is it enough to make a difference?
Only with the help of passengers can we see these efforts through in a meaningful way. Here are some major sources of waste that we tend to overlook:
Premium class amenity kits
One of the fun parts of flying first class is getting your hands on your cute airline-branded designer bag full of tiny luxury skincare products and often hideous but comfortable socks. But on the return flight, those items then become redundant. Maybe you’ve used up your little toothpaste tube and need a new one to freshen up for your arrival home. So you open the new amenity kit, leaving behind all the rest. Surely the airline will repackage those items, won’t they?
Probably not. Even on a short flight with a small business – or first – class cabin, it’s a formidable amount of non-recyclable trash, and especially sad because so much of it was never even used once. Slowly, some airlines are starting to look for solutions. Clean The World, a non-profit organization that provides items such as soap, toothpaste and shampoo to those in need, has now found an important ally in United, who has begun donating left-behind amenity kits to be repacked and given to the needy in order to help end preventable disease and death among those who don’t have easy access to basic hygiene products.
While more airlines will hopefully follow suit, the best practice for passengers is still to leave an unwanted amenity kit sealed and keep their own toothbrushes and toothpaste in carry-on bags, rather than waste an entire kit for a disposable toothbrush…and toss that, too.
In premium cabins, meal service involves a bit of a flourish – garnishes, dressings, etc. are often placed on a dish by the crew just prior to serving. In order to meet the exacting standards of a high-end clientele, these last-minute additions are sometimes portioned out for the crew for the sake of consistency. But those portioned items often come in plastic cups that become trash in a matter of minutes, when they could all come in a single container with guidelines for precise measuring.
Premium classes are usually also catered with much more food than is needed in order to give passengers as much of a meal choice as possible. Besides the fact that it’s a plain old sin to waste food, it then usually cannot be composted, especially internationally because of the agricultural risks. Some airlines offer the ability to pre-order meals, and doing so reduces the amount of unnecessary food (and accoutrements for the food) to be boarded on the flight. Hopefully all airlines in the near future will offer this option to all customers, as opposed to just those ordering special meals.
This one is a no-brainer, but refillable water bottles are now very much commonplace, as are filtered water bottle fillers in most major airports. According to the Mayo Clinic, we ought to aim for 9-13 cups of water a day. Using those guidelines, if we all BYOB when we fly, think of how many plastic cups and bottles that would save per flight! And if airlines could accordingly reduce the amount of water bottles catered, that would have the added benefit of reducing fuel consumption!
Here’s one that really makes me crazy for a lot of reasons. A lot of us opt to bring meals onboard, so we buy them in the airport to bring on. Airport food now seems to be packaged in the most ridiculous way possible: almost everything comes in a massive shopping bag that could fit your average four year-old child. The food itself is usually packed in a large clamshell container or even pizza box. Both of those are often recyclable on the ground, but never inflight. It can be hard to avoid when you’re in a rush and need to eat on the plane, but if you have time at the airport, opt to sit and eat at a restaurant there instead. You’ll leave much less behind and likely enjoy your food more.
All in all, recycling requires the dedication of the crew, caterers and other people who are involved in managing onboard waste, and not everyone follows procedures or is as proactive as possible. Even then, current procedures don’t cover as much as they can. Waste reduction is key, and with a bit more awareness and caring, we can all make a huge difference.