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Airline waste and how to reduce it

The aviation industry has, everyone admits, had a tawdry time over the last 24 months. COVID-19 notwithstanding, hikes in fuel duties and new regulations have meant the airline industry has had to innovate or die. One of the issues facing the airlines are tighter restrictions on pollution and ahead of Farnborough International Airshow 2022 in July, it remains one of the themes running throughout the show. How to get global pollution from aircraft down to a manageable level or perhaps even carbon zero. Such targets were once a pipe dream in an industry that seemed determined to carry on regardless, but now airlines globally are being forced to wake up and smell the jet fuel.

Whilst flying is always going to burn fuels directly into the atmosphere, efforts with biofuels, fuel cells and even solar derived energy systems are all being investigated into making aviation engine technology more environmentally friendly. Even the leading exponents in the industry admit that it will probably be many decades before aviation in all its forms can claim to be truly carbon neutral.

In 2022, a typical airline passenger generates 0.82kg to 2.5kg of waste per flight, dependent upon distance flown and the class of travel. This weight can be further broken down somewhat to 23 percent untouched food and drinks and 17 percent recyclable materials such as plastic bottles, newspapers, straws, and utensils according to figures released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Air travel is, after two years of stagnation caused by the global pandemic expanding once again, and with it the small mountain of trash is growing too; particularly single use plastics. Despite the current war on plastics many experts believe that the next decade will see a 40 percent increase in plastics production (Plastic Free Foundation figures).

Regardless, airlines around the world are looking for solutions at this year’s Farnborough International 2022 Air Show. Some world class airlines are already making a start: Air New Zealand for example to mark their ‘Plastic Free July’ removed individual plastic water bottles from its Business Premier and Premium Economy cabins. This move alone diverted more than 460,000 plastic bottles from entering landfill annually. The weight of the water bottles not being flown also had the added benefit of reducing carbon emissions by more than 300,000 kg.

Air New Zealand has also removed individual plastic sauce sachets, saving 200,000 packets from landfill every year. In neighbouring Australia, Qantas have cut 100 million single use plastic products from their flights. Their ambitious Bowerbird program eliminated 75 percent of all waste by the end of 2021.

Together Air New Zealand and Qantas carry 50 million passengers annually and both airlines totalled together produce around 30,000 tonnes of waste every single year: that’s the equivalent of 80 fully loaded Boeing 747 jumbo jets worth.

Through simple measures like removing plastic protective coverings from packed pyjamas and headphones both airlines have started to decrease this burdensome heavy load.

Emirates have also taken a bite into their waste problems by introducing the ecoTHREAD blanket each one made from 28 recycled plastic bottles.

The road to removing the airline industry’s reliance on plastics is not going to be easy. Plastics have many advantages over alternatives being strong, lightweight, easy to clean and mouldable into a wide variety of shapes and sizes. It is not impossible, however, to change as Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly proved in December 2018 and January 2019 when the airline became the first to operate a 100 percent single use plastic free flight between Portugal and Brazil.

Across Europe efforts are being made to reduce waste. The European Union is driving the issue at the core of their European aviation and environmental strategies. The EU’s Life Zero Cabin Waste project has the backing of many airlines, recycling companies and environmental service providers. The aim is to get the world’s airlines using 80 percent less plastics within five years.

At Farnborough International 2022 numerous environmental waste solution companies and innovators will be displaying their solutions to an airline industry finally eager to listen to what they have to say and sell.

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