How do we solve the airline industry’s plastic problem?

Close up breakfast tray on board the flight to Sydney, Australia

If you’ve ever flown in a plane before, and we’re guessing you have, you may have noticed the excessive amount of plastic involved in the food service.

Pretty much everything on your tray table is covered in plastic.

With many cruise, hotel, and tour companies jumping on the plastic-free bandwagon, aviation seems to be one area of travel that has been left behind.

According to IATA the average passenger generates 1.4 kilograms of waste per flight, with the total amount of passenger waste for 2017 sitting at 5.7 tonnes.

Waste container with leftovers

Chris Goater, a spokesman for IATA told the ABC passenger waste is mainly incinerated or taken to landfill, due to quarantine regulations.

“As much as we’d like to reuse or recycle, regulations don’t allow for that,” he said.

Dr Susanne Becken, a professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University told the ABC that regulations on hygiene dictate that things need to be packaged to some extent and plastic is currently the cheapest solution.

That and weight restrictions, with the lightweight nature of plastic making flights more fuel efficient than alternatives like metal or porcelain.

“Replacement is not straightforward, metal is not allowed for safety reasons, ceramic increases weight and therefore co2 emissions,” Goater said.

Becken said she believes the majority of airlines aren’t addressing the issue.

However, customer complaints about excessive plastic usage have prompted more environmentally engaged airlines, like Qantas and Air New Zealand have been making some positive changes.

“People are becoming sensitised to the use of plastics, and for some airlines that has become a major issue in terms of customer complaints,” she told the ABC.

In flight meal breakfast leftovers.

Air New Zealand customers are particularly concerned about the use of single-use coffee cups, prompting the airline to make a commitment to recycle it’s plastic cups.

Qantas has also introduced plastic free headsets and pyjamas, which is claims will “divert one metre of plastic per person from landfill on every flight”.

The national carrier also donated leftover catering from domestic flights to OzHarvest.

“There’s a lot of clever ways of minimising plastic, they take a little bit of innovation but again it’s the airlines that are committed that come up with solutions,” she said.

But Goater said the only real solution would be new waste regulations.

He said IATA is currently trialling solutions to quarantine regulations to show where they could be relaxed.

“We need a more common-sense approach because there are examples where we don’t have to be quite so draconian with the issue,” he told the ABC. 

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