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Waste in the sky


Few of us, as we sit in our comfortable airline seats, really think too hard about the impact our flight is having. Be it in the fuel being burnt by the hugely powerful Rolls Royce, Allison or Pratt and Whitney turbine engines or even down to such after thoughts as the plaster stirrers, plastic cups and bottles and even the plastic trays the airlines present our in flight meals on. For example did you know that Emirates Airline produces 180,000 meals every single day to satisfy the hunger of passengers on its 400 daily flights around the world?

In this second of our blog posts to coincide with the Farnborough International Airshow we take a look at some of the mind blowing airline statistics and at some of the solutions the aviation industry is hoping to introduce in the future to reduce our over reliance on disposable plastic products. The airlines trade body International Air Transport Association has conservatively estimated that the airline industry annually produces 5.2 million tons of waste. The association estimates that by the year 2030 this amount could have doubled to 10 million tons each and every year!

Delta Air Lines 767-400 ATL-SAN trip report

Farnborough International Airshow celebrates its 70th anniversary this July. In 1948 when the first show was staged at the Hampshire airfield the plastics industry was in its infancy – wonder products such as Bakelite were the byword for progress – but it wasn’t long before innovations soon made their mark. Plastics derived from oil were soon made stronger, lighter and more durable; three words that made the aviation industry stand up and take notice. If aeroplane manufacturers could make aircraft lighter and stronger they would have longer range and be able to accommodate more passengers; equals more profits for the airlines. 

Soon plastics found their way into aircraft design like never more. You only have to look inside a modern Boeing 737 or Dreamliner or indeed an Airbus A380 to see just how much of an aircraft is made of plastics: overhead lockers, catches, straps, push buttons, seat backs, environmental controls, knobs and of course when it comes to the in flight catering coffee and tea come in plastic cups with plastic lids (except in 1st class, of course), diners are presented with plastic trays covered in cling film (another plastic) wrapped meals. All of these products are disposed of at the end flights adding to the ocean of plastic waste that is slowly suffocating the planet. 


The convenience of plastic serving solutions is what continues to drive airlines to utilise such products. They are relatively cheap and crucially disposable. Most alternatives add weight that will be passed on to passengers in higher airfares – something the airline industry wants to avoid. 

So what are the solutions to this problem?

Cheap no thrills airlines offering nothing extra to their passengers expect the convenience of a relatively cheap flight to their destinations. Any extra’s come with a price – so in flight beverages are pricey. This approach cuts down on demand somewhat and has an appreciable reduction in waste at the end of each flight. 

Mid range carriers are starting to offer coffee, teas and dinners in mostly bio-degradable paper based products. Crucially these cups and servers have done away with plastic coatings that are no-biodegradable. These carriers, usually on medium to long haul routes have a duty of care to provide food and drink to their customers whilst also trying to improve their environmental impact. 

Big Data is also being used to try and reduce waste by predicting human behaviour patterns and choices. Based on a history of preferred brands and choices the airlines can reasonably accurately predict passenger’s preferences and stock each aircraft accordingly. If you’re a frequent flyer Big Data can be used to predict an individual’s preferences to a high level of accuracy.

If you’re fortunate enough to be turned left on entering a plane and move towards First or Business Class, you might expect a different catering experience on aircraft. Durable crockery and stainless steel cutlery are, if not the norm, relatively common. These items can be cleaned and reused thousands of times but they add weight that could not be replicated over 300 – 600 passengers on each flight. The cost would be prohibitive. 

The plastics industry and the airlines in a bid to improve their images are collaborating on developing new brands of plastics that can be used in flight, perhaps dozens or hundreds of times before they are disposed. Such products take time to create, trial and introduce. Safe to say that within the next decade the huge mountains of plastic waste seen at airports as cleaners sweep through each just landed airliner will be a less common sight. 

A number of the leading airlines have taken the issue of waste seriously. SAS and Qantus have introduced on board recycling whilst the latter has also started a program with a charity called OzHarvest which each week collects 87 tons of food waste and distributes to those in need across Australia. Elsewhere Emirates Airline has introduced thermal blankets that have been made from recycled plastic bottles; in the process saving 12,000 plastic bottles from landfill sites.

The European Union in concert with most governmental bodies have set strict targets for the airline industry to step up to. The EU’s ‘Life + Zero Cabin Waste’ program aims to achieve an 80 percent reduction in cabin waste that arrives at Madrid’s Barajas Airport by 2020.

Farnborough International Airshow will be displaying a vast number of new and radical solutions to the airlines and military’s of the world. Let’s hope this issue is one of those addressed at this year’s show which starts in mid July. 

Written by Patrick Boniface

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