Unhappy ending for the 880 tons of newspapers, aluminum cans, plastic cups and more annually generated by airlines
When flight attendants roam up and down the aisle with large trash bags to collect passengers’ discards, I’ve always wondered whether someone somewhere sorts it, or whether it just ends up in landfills. Responsible Shopper, a consumer watchdog website, has issued a new report cleverly called “What Goes Up Must Go Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry.”
I wish it had been otherwise, but their disheartening finding is that of the more than 880 million tons of waste that carriers generate annually, only 20 percent is recycled while, the organization says, fully 75 percent could be. Delta, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest are doing the best job of recycling and United and US Airways, the worst.
Lookout Landfills, Here It Comes!
According to research published by the Natural Resource Defense Council, airlines annually throw away 9,000 tons of plastic, enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747 jets, and enough newspaper and magazines to cover a football field some 700 feet deep. The council says that energy savings from recycling this waste “would represent a contribution by the airlines to reducing their environmental impact in the face of the considerable climate impact of jet fuel, including 600 million tons of carbon dioxide per year pumped into the atmosphere by commercial jets alone.”
According to the Responsible Shopper report, airlines could recycle nearly 500 million more tons of waste each year (including 250 million tons of in-flight waste) than they do. Furthermore, no airline recycles all the major recyclables: aluminum cans, glass, plastic, and paper, and no airline has a comprehensive program for minimizing or composting food waste or waste from snack packages. It is probably out of embarrassment that no airline provides good public information about their recycling program, or reports out on progress in relation to any stated goals. In addition, the report says, that all airlines provide over-packaged snacks and meals (below), and not one is working with manufacturers to reduce this waste.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A lifetime ago, I worked for Swissair in New York. Even then, the carrier had a contract with pig farmers near Zürich to take all the food waste. But then, the Swiss always seem to do things better than most of the rest of the world. When I think of how little flight attendants have to do on most domestic flights in these times of hardly any food service and minimal snack service, it doesn’t seem to much to ask them to bring two trash bags down the aisle, one for recyclables and one for landfill-bound trash.
Ranked from best to worst with even the best receiving only a B- grade for current recycling efforts and future plans:
- Delta Airlines
- Virgin America
- Virgin Atlantic
- Southwest Airlines
- Continental Airlines
- Jet Blue
- American Airlines
- British Airways (I’m not sure why this British flag carrier is on the list either)
- Air Tran
- United Airlines
- US Airways
Green America and Responsible Shopper have a call to action too. They are asking passengers respectfully ask flight attendants whether materials on their specific flights are being recycled, and go online to report their findings. The recycling report also contains a list of the airlines and their contact information for anyone who wants to contact them directly.
Responsible Shopper’s lead researcher, Victoria Kreha, has some advice for passenger wanting to be proactive, “For concerned consumers looking to spend their travel dollars wisely, airline waste may be the ultimate example of ‘what goes up must come down.’ The good news is that airlines are starting to pay attention to recycling; the bad news is that they have a long way to go to improve the situation. Fortunately, airlines can overcome any of the challenges to creating in-flight recycling programs, including employee education and involvement, knowledge of the type of waste produced, and a time- and space-efficient system.”
I’m not about to preach about the environmental benefits of recycling, even though airlines practice pathetically little of it, better waste management has the potential of creating jobs nationwide, since according to Colorado Recycles, recycling creates six times as many jobs as landfilling. High time for airlines to step up to the recycling plate.