Airlines generated 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste in 2017, and as passenger numbers increase, the volume of waste could double in the next 10 years, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Airlines around the world have recognised the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling waste. From analysing passenger consumption data and using compostable cups and dishes, to donating non-perishable food items and introducing on-board recycling of bottles and cans, airlines are committed to preventing cabin waste from ending up in landfills and incinerators.
In-flight catering operates under strict food safety, hygiene controls, freshness and weight requirements, so plastic wrapping is often the go-to option. On-board waste, including leftover food and drink packaging, passengers’ newspapers, paper towels and plastic wrapping from headsets and blankets are all subject to national waste management controls that limit pollution.
Many countries have gone further with their regulations and imposed strict controls on catering waste from international flights based on animal health concerns. The rules, formulated to avoid the international transfer of diseases such as foot and mouth, dictate that airlines treat catering waste as high-risk and either incinerate it or bury it in deep landfill, which prevents reuse and recycling. As these regulations mean airlines’ hands are tied, the industry advocates the adoption of smarter waste regulation, allowing more recycling while maintaining human and animal health controls.
To ensure passenger satisfaction, airlines often stock more food than required on board flights. Flexible catering is one way that airlines can curb waste. By tracking consumption over time, airlines predict which meals and drinks are most popular on any given route and adjust stocks accordingly.
Another solution is the pay-as-you-go approach, where travellers order meals before a flight – widely used by low-cost carriers but also increasingly by other airlines. Passengers only buy what they consume, which reduces the amount of untouched food that must be thrown away.
Taking the lead
Reliance on plastic contributes to the on board waste issue, but an increasing number of airlines are introducing alternative packaging and recycling solutions to minimise waste.
Delta Airlines is removing a variety of single-use plastic items from its aircraft and lounges. Utensils no longer have an outer plastic wrapper and are instead rolled in a napkin, outer plastic wrappers are removed from amenity kits and plastic stir sticks, and straws are replaced with bamboo and birch wood.
- Delta Airlines is expected to eliminate more than 300,000 pounds a year in plastic waste - that is more than the weight of two Boeing 757 aircraft!
- Ryanair is switching to biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery, and paper packaging by 2023
- Philippine carrier Cebu Pacific has replaced non-recyclable cutlery, stirrers and cups with sustainable alternatives on all flights
- Qantas Group aims to become the world's first airline to reuse, recycle and compost at least three-quarters of its general waste by the end of 2021.
Combating food waste
Virgin Australia and Qantas have partnered with OzHarvest, Australia’s leading food rescue organisation. OzHarvest collects between 6,000 and 8,000 kg of quality excess food – or 18,000 meals – per month from Virgin and Qantas and delivers it directly to more than 1,300 charities across the country. The food saved from domestic flights include pre-packaged sandwiches, wraps, muffins, muesli bars, snacks and juices.
Delta partnered with Loopworks in 2018 to transform over 1 million pieces of retired employee uniform (over 350,000 pounds) into laptop bags, travel kits, home insulation and punch bag filling. The project marked one of the largest single company textile diversion programmes in U.S. history, where no items went to landfills or incineration.
Innovative airport recycling
One by-product of air transport’s rapid growth is the amount of waste from airports. Waste is generated from a variety of sources, including retail outlets and restaurants, airport offices, restrooms, flight catering centres, air cargo terminals, aircraft and ground service equipment maintenance facilities and landscaping and construction projects.
To mitigate the environmental impact of waste and comply with regulatory requirements, airports are increasingly implementing sustainable waste management systems.
Vancouver International Airport surpassed its ambitious target of diverting half the waste produced at the terminal from going to landfill by 2020, achieving 51% terminal waste diversion in 2016 and 2017. The airport supplemented long-standing recycling programmes with community engagement initiatives and installed a centralised food court sorting station. This organic waste recycling programme dramatically increased their waste diversion.
At Geneva Airport, the recycling rate in the main terminal increased from 49% to 53% between 2016 and 2017, thanks to the installation of new sorting centres in front of the new check-in hall façade, and the implementation of a new process enabling passengers to keep their bottles by emptying them before passing through security.
A different type of recycling programme was developed by Portland International Jetport in collaboration with Inland Technologies. Together, they created a recycling programme to recapture the superfluous aircraft de-icing fluid after it is sprayed on planes and turn it back into de-icing fluid. It is the first recycling programme of its kind in the United States and Portland Jetport became the first airport in the country to use 100% recycled aircraft de-icing fluid.
Queenstown Airport turned trash to treasure for its latest resurfacing project by using a new lower carbon asphalt which incorporates waste printer toner and recycled glass to resurface its aircraft parking area beside the terminal building.
End of service (aircraft recycling)
An aircraft will typically remain in service for around 20-25 years. During that time, it will fly on average 40,274,144 kilometres – over 1,000 times around the world – with some long-haul aircraft flying over 100 million kilometres!
Once it reaches the end of its useful life, 85% to 90% of the aircraft (by weight) can be recycled. This ensures proper disposal, but also takes advantage of the many high-quality components and materials. The industry is optimistic that current recycle rates can be maintained as technology advances.
The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) is working with 72 companies such as manufacturers of aircraft and engines, component suppliers and operators, to establish best practice for aircraft disposal and recycling. These organisations recycle over 150 aircraft and 30,000 tonnes of aluminium every year. Manufacturers are also ensuring new aircraft are designed not only for a long, safe and efficient life, but also for end-of-life opportunities.
New materials such as carbon fibre present new challenges for aircraft designers in finding ways of dealing with the materials when no longer in use. Processes are being developed to recycle these materials once the aircraft reaches the end of its useful lifespan.