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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Waste On A Plane – It’s Not Just Emissions The Aviation Industry Needs To Address

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Aeroplanes on tarmac

Resident travel contributor, Jaclyn Yost, takes a closer look at the aviation industry and discovers CO2 emissions aren’t the only thing that needs overhauling.

While we are keeping tabs on the changes that need to be made within the airline industry, it looks like waste on aeroplanes needs to be added to the list. From food to cardboard and paper, to plastics and even sewage it seems we have a lot more to worry about than just CO2 emissions (which most mass media headlines focus on when discussing the problems present in the aviation sector). Next time you’re planning a vacation where there’s flying involved, spare a thought for the trash you may be unintentionally leaving behind. 

Just How Much Trash Are We Talking?

A recent study from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that approximately 6.1 million tonnes of waste was collectively generated onboard global flights in 2018. Break that down further, and it means the average plane passenger will leave behind about 1.43 kg of garbage per flight. To make matters worse, as there is no central authority tracking these statistics, these rough estimates could easily equate to even more than suggested by the experts. 

The biggest culprit of plane garbage is untouched food and drinks. According to the IATA, this makes up over 20% of overall produced cabin trash. This is mostly due to the strict country-specific regulations, particularly crossing international borders, requiring food and beverage products to be taken to a landfill or incinerated to prevent the spreading of disease. Furthermore, due to health and safety standards, if there is a flight delay, meals are likely to be thrown out and replaced with new dishes for food safety, hygiene and freshness purposes.

Moreover, with the continued growth of the tourism sector (thanks to increased accessibility, a growing middle-class, and increase in budget airlines) it is safe to assume that the amount of generated waste will only increase as well. The IATA is predicting these numbers will double within the next decade; reaching 12.2 million tonnes by 2030.

How Can This Issue Change?

Sustainable advocates from around the globe are calling for industry professionals and travellers to bring awareness to this environmental situation; which simultaneously is generating extravagant waste disposal costs (an estimated US$700 million per year)

Megan Epler Wood, director of Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative and author of ‘Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet’, believes that change will need to come from government leaders and executive industry authorities, as facilities and systems will need to be dissected entirely to be turned around.

Further, Chris Goater, a spokesman for IATA, suggests that new waste regulations and policies would need to be in the form of disposal guidance, developing uniformed best standard practices, and promoting technical solutions that support a circular economy; as these are the only real, present, and feasible solutions to the problem at hand. In recognition of these suggestions, a collaboration between government authorities, airports, and airlines is necessary. Nonetheless, both Wood and Goater noted that this type of system change could be extremely complicated. 

What We Can Do Now

While the options for consumers to get directly involved in system change may be limited, what we can do is lobby the appropriate industry leaders and government leaders, and show our support to appropriate bodies and action groups. Such as the IATA and Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders.

Furthermore, we can show interest in aviation projects that are working to reduce in-flight waste. For example:

Air New Zealand’s Project Green An initiative aimed to divert sealed beverages and unopened snacks from landfill, which previously would have been sent due to biosecurity controls. They are also actively working on cutting down single-use plastics like plastic cups and bottled water.

OzHarvest An Australian based food rescue organisation that picks up salvageable domestic food from airports, as well as supermarkets, hotels, etc., (i.e. cereals, fruit, packaged meals) and delivers the goods to over 1,300 charities in the region.

American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Alaskan Airlines, among others, have begun to move away from single-use plastics by switching to bamboo and birchwood products. Although still waste, it’s a start and step in the right direction.

As conscious consumers, by now, we are used to hearing what needs to be changed, yet can sometimes lack actionable guidance. But by speaking up about what we believe in and providing encouragement to promising initiatives, hopefully, we can work to spark positive change within the industry.


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A self-proclaimed "Eco-Nomad", Jaclyn Yost has lived in various parts of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and has journeyed to 41 countries (so far)! She is passionate about spreading awareness on sustainable tourism and how to be a more responsible tourist. When she is not working or traveling, you can usually find her in a yoga studio or whipping up a tasty meal in the kitchen.