National Consumers League

Reducing the mountain of waste on airplanes

On a flight to Idaho earlier this week, I brought my own coffee mug. My flight attendant was unexpectedly enthusiastic: “Anything that will help save the planet,” she said. I do not find this to be the case at Starbucks, where baristas insist on giving me a new plastic cup when I’m getting my iced tea, or at the Nespresso counter at Bloomingdales, which recently refused to serve me a coffee in my own cup. Reducing our personal footprint should be a big issue for all of us as we see the rapid pace of climate change and what it is doing to our beloved planet.  

At home, I can compost food scraps, choose to take public transportation, minimize food waste, and drive a hybrid car.  But it’s tough to do your part to conserve, reduce, reuse, and recycle and try to “save the planet,” as an airline passenger.  The New York Times reports that the average air passenger generates three pounds of waste in the form of plastic cups, the headphones, food left on plates, wrapping for snacks, and plastic cutlerymultiply that times 4 billion passengers a year, and it really adds up! 

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg opted to sail to New York from Europe to avoid being part of the problem: emissions from airplanes.  

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group representing the airlines, estimated that planes generated 6.7 million tons of cabin waste last year. Another group that studied the waste found that it broke down as 33 percent food waste, 28 percent cardboard and paper, and 12 percent plastic.   

So, what are the airlines doing, and how can consumers be part of the solution? Well, airlines are under pressure to conserve precisely because consumers are demanding they do so, as the New York Times article reported.  Air France said it would eliminate 210 million single-use plastic items like cups and coffee stirrers. Qantas has removed individually packaged servings of milk and Vegemite, and now serves meals in containers made from sugar cane, and utensils made from crop starch. Some United Airlines flights use “fully compostable or recyclable service ware.”  

Consumers can inquire about recycling products and demand changes in rigid rules on tossing out untouched food and drink, in place supposedly to protect agriculture. The trade group IATA estimates that these untouched items make up 20 percent of total airline waste. As reported by the New York Times, companies employed to help reduce airline waste are making dishes from pressed wheat bran and “sporks” from coconut palm wood. 

Asking the airlines what they are doing to reduce waste is a good start. Let’s press the airlines for answers and--while we are it: what about hybrid or electric engines on planes? That is a topic we can explore another day.