Let’s talk about “the elephant onboard”: airline waste


Just last week I boarded three planes going to Spain from Manila in a span of more or less 20 hours—my first overseas flight. That’s one plane from Manila to Doha, where I took a connecting flight going to Madrid, and from there, a smaller aircraft for an hour-long flight to my final destination north of Spain.

When I received my booking confirmation from the carrier, there’s a small note at the bottom of the page which estimated my average carbon dioxide emission share at 1,488.23 kg or 1.5 metric tons. That’s almost a quarter of China’s—the country with the highest carbon dioxide emission—annual figures per capita in 2016 pegged at 6.4 metric tons. I achieved that in a matter of two days in one roundtrip.

Great. So on top of the financial cost and the grueling hours (I just wasted two days of my life sitting idly with people I barely know in an aircraft suspended 3,000 ft mid-air!), I have to deal with the moral guilt of actively and significantly contributing to the climate change problem.

And that’s just one (big) part of the overall impact of flying. There’s another alarming factor that seemingly proliferates unnoticed when we take to the skies: airline waste. 

[N]othing really prepared me for the horror of seeing just how much single-use plastic packaging there is onboard.

Would you like your meal in single-use plastic packaging, sir/ma’am?

Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

While it was nice of my airline to inform me of how much carbon emissions I am contributing by choosing to fly with them, nothing really prepared me for the horror of seeing just how much single-use plastic packaging there is onboard. As I located my seat in the economy class, there on the cushioned little space I have to myself are packages of personal effects (earplugs, vanity kit, sleeping mask), headphones, blanket, and a pillow. They were there in four out of six of the planes I took.

Then there’s the in-flight meal. The attendants ration meals in their trollies every two hours. Once the order is settled, the meal is given to you in a compartmentalized tray with an appetizer of bread and butter or jam, a side of vegetable, and dessert each placed in a hard plastic bowl with cover. There’s also the bottled water or juice and of course, the main dish packaged in a stout rectangular plastic tub with peel-away lid. The only consolation is that the cutlery is at least reusable stainless steel and bottomless drinks do not come in single-use bottles. They refill your hard acetate glass with your choice of wine, cider, assorted fruit juices, or water. The soda is canned, by the way, so there’s that.

Even if I opt not to avail of the meals, the crew will still have to deal with that surplus once they land. Food waste accounts for 33 percent of airline waste according to research done by the Barcelona-based UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change that looked into 145 flights in Madrid under four airlines, which produced 8,400 pounds of garbage.

Based on figures by the International Air Transport Association, a passenger leaves behind three pounds of trash per flight on average. In 2016, the same agency, which works with 290 airlines, found that passengers alone generated 5.7 million tons of trash, while a 2010 report by the National Resources Defense Council in the US cited by Vox in an article about the issue estimated that annually “airlines toss 9,000 tons of plastic, enough aluminum cans to build 58 new Boeing 747s, and enough newspapers and magazines to engulf a football field 230 meters deep.”

Flying towards a sustainable end

So what is the airline industry doing about this? Apart from public pronouncements of doing away with plastic cutlery or straws and stirrers, some airlines are actually making small steps towards non-generation of waste. 

Last May, Australian carrier Qantas flight QF739 from Sydney to Adelaide became the first flight to produce no landfill waste by switching to fully compostable meal containers made from sugar cane and cutlery made from crop starch.

During this year’s observance of World Environment Day, United Airlines flew what they claim as the most eco-friendly commercial flight which ran on “sustainable aviation biofuel” and used fully recyclable or compostable serviceware for its inflight food service.


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Presenting our concept for an airline meal tray where every element is made from edible, biodegradable or commercially compostable materials . This new design is part of our exhibition ‘Get Onboard: Reduce. Reuse. Rethink’, which opens today @designmuseum. The exhibition addresses the vast issue of waste in travel . . . . . #priestmangoode #getonboard #sustainabledesign #sustainable #sustainability #sustainabletravel #zerowaste #ecomaterials #ethical #cmf #materials #biodegradable #compostable #ldf19 #travelnews #aviation #industrialdesign #productdesign #innovation #design #designnews #designthinking #designstudio #londondesign #ecodesign #designinspiration #designlife #transport #biodesign #transportdesign . @design @dezeen @wallpapermag @designboom @designmilk @l_d_f_official @thedesignair @design_burger @designers_need @prodeez @lemanoosh_official @id_curated @thepointsguy @thepointsguyuk @designbunker @yankodesign @thedesignair @letsdesigndaily @_design_inspiration

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In the UK, an aviation design consultancy called PriestmanGoode mounted an exhibit at the Design Museum in London entitled “Get Onboard: Reduce.Reuse.Rethink” that tackles the strides taken towards a more ecologically-conscious approach to airline management by the industry and how consumer behavior is slowly shaping it.

Part of the exhibit is a proposed alternative to single-use meal packaging, which consists of meal trays fashioned out of renewable materials like banana leaves, coconut wood, and coffee grounds.

The food industry that ultimately sets the standards for airline food service is also instigating changes towards a greener future. In the food congress where I went to in San Sebastian, Spain (the very precursor of this story and the reason I took that 20+ hour flight), industry leaders and culinary giants weighed in on the future of food. 

[READ: Sisig, inasal, and other Filipino dishes wow at gastronomy congress in Spain]

Renowned Andalusian chef Ángel León behind three Michelin-starred restaurant Aponiente in Cadiz presented his latest food innovations: cheese, bacon, noodles, and sugar made from marine resources like seaweeds. While the leading academic institution in Donostia, the Basque Culinary Center shared their efforts to integrate sustainability in their research and curriculum. 

As León along with other big names in Basque and international restaurant scene took to the stage, they also each did a cooking demonstration, which results were later served to the audience in compostable bowls and plates made with biodegradable materials like paper and plant fibers. 

I hope being at this congress, eating off these plates and bowls and drinking nothing but wine and water in glass bottles (yes, I trust Spain’s recycling facilities), somehow offset my humongous carbon dioxide emissions from flying.

Also sorry, Greta Thunberg, I have failed you and the future generation by choosing to fly with *bleep*.


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Read more:

“Biodegradable” plastic is not the solution it is posing to be

Cotton totes aren’t the be-all end-all solution to eliminating plastic waste

Our online shopping habits are producing more plastic waste



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