According to the International Air Transport Association, airlines generated more than 5 million metric tons of cabin waste in 2017.
With passenger growth rates, this number could double before 2030, unless the world’s leading airlines take steps to prevent it. American, Delta, and Southwest are the three biggest airlines by passenger capacity and have the collective ability to carry almost 700 million travelers.
This gives them the ability to make a significant difference in the amount of cabin waste created every year.
Cabin waste is made up of cleaning waste (like newspapers, plastic wrapping, and toiletries) and catering waste (like in-flight food, drinks, and packaging) produced during a flight. It’s difficult to recycle because it’s often subject to strict International Catering Laws that regulate the disposal of items crossing international borders.
“The US Department of Agriculture considers materials from international flights contaminated with meat, dairy and/or produce to be regulated waste, which must be thermally treated to ensure there is no contamination to domestic US agriculture,” Delta explained in its 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report. Keeping recyclable materials separate from regulated waste is an ongoing challenge for the company and one reason why IATA advocates for change from both the regulators and the airlines when tackling this issue.
However, other airlines show that it’s possible to introduce sustainable policies while still adhering to current international regulations. Low-budget European airline RyanAir, ranked fifth largest in the world by passenger capacity, pledged to be plastic free by 2023. The airline’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, announced that “For customers on board, this will mean initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, biodegradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products.”
Hi Fly, a Portuguese wet-lease and charter airline, is one step ahead and flew its first single-use plastic-free routes from Portugal to Brazil in December 2018.
So, how do the world’s three largest airlines stack up against Hi Fly and RyanAir?
American Airlines, the world’s biggest airline, may have started the first onboard recycling program in 1989, but the company is no longer at the forefront of cabin waste management.
American’s 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report is somewhat vague in the claim that it is “pursuing the sourcing of cost-neutral biodegradable materials where possible” but does outline one major recent policy change: the removal of plastic straws and addition of environmentally-friendly stir sticks on its flights. This, along with replacing the straws and flatware in lounges with biodegradable options, will eliminate more than 71,000 pounds of plastic per year.
Delta, the second largest airline, is also making changes to reduce cabin waste.
In 2018 the airline reiterated its continued campaign to remove “a variety of single-use plastic items, including stir sticks, wrappers, utensils and straws” from planes and lounges and is introducing new first-class amenity kits sans unnecessary plastic wrapping. Between the two initiatives, it expects to eliminate more than 330,000 pounds of plastic waste each year.
Delta is also working “to better align the amount of food, beverage, and other items on board with customer demand,” and found that allowing customers to preorder meals has helped reduce food waste and carbon emissions as well.
Southwest rounds out the top three airlines and is implementing policies similar to American and Delta to make its flights more environmentally friendly.
The airline was named the best in the United States in the 2019 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards, so it may not come as a surprise that it is also the most transparent in sharing the exact amount of cabin waste it creates: about 50 pounds per flight, according to Southwest spokesman Dan Landson.
Chris Monroe, senior vice president of finance, said in the company’s most recent responsibility report that it has implemented “aggressive efforts to reduce resource consumption, manage solid waste, and recycle wherever possible.” On board, new policies include transitioning to biodegradable products, removing paper ticket jackets, and using electronic flight bags to manage tasks among pilots and crew instead of paper charts and manuals.
Still, the company as a whole created more waste in 2018 than it did in the previous two years and reports that 35 percent was recycled, which is on par with its 2016 numbers but less than in 2017.
For travelers dissatisfied by the airlines’ progress, it’s possible to take responsibility for at least part of the environmental impact of your flights into your own hands.
Next time you fly, save paper by using a mobile boarding pass and bring a reusable water bottle so you can decline the drinks in plastic bottles and cups. You can also buy carbon offsets for your flights, like the EcoTourist Bundle from TerraPass that offsets five four-hour flights for $59.50.
When possible, opt to fly nonstop on flights over 500 miles because 25 percent of emissions are produced during takeoff and landing. If your airline offers the option to pre-order meals, doing so can also help the flight team reduce excess food waste.