The miracle of air travel is a calamity for mother earth. Between greenhouse gases and veritable mountains of plastic cutlery, the airlines of the world have a lot to answer for in terms of environmental impact.
Every time you fly, you—one single person—produces, on average, 1.4 kilograms of waste. That’s according to the International Air Transport Association, who say the total amount of global airline passenger waste in 2017 amounted to 5.7 million tonnes—an increase of half a million since 2016.
What does that waste consist of? Plastic cups, water bottles, food packaging, blanket wrappings. Most of which is unrecyclable and destined for landfill or incineration. And with populations increasing and more people flying every day, that number is only set to rise.
The problem can be chalked up to a number of factors, one of which is money. Plastic is abundant because it’s cheap and lightweight, meaning airlines can cut costs on both the materials themselves and the cost of fuel to fly. Lower weight means higher fuel efficiency.
Another big issue is that stringent quarantine laws in western countries prohibiting overseas packaging from being recycled due to biosecurity risks. International flights touching down in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States are subject to regulations that insist on everything being incinerated. The possibility of an infectious animal disease being ferried across the Atlantic in a half-eaten beef stroganoff isn’t worth the risk.
“Essentially when you have anything on board in particular Australia and New Zealand where we are so concerned about biosecurity, it has to be destroyed,” Dr Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University, told the ABC. “Literally everything—even a can of coke that has not been opened.”
But while the current outlook may seem dire, there are those in the industry who are implementing change. Qantas, for one, has already started using recycled materials for its packaging and offering plastic-free headsets, and have partnered with food rescue organisation OzHarvest to donate unused perishables to people in need. Emirates, meanwhile, has installed recycling facilities on board their flights and rolled out eco-friendly blankets made from recycled bottles.
"There are a number of unique solutions in the market today," Mark Ross-Smith, a data specialist and airline consultant told CNN Travel last year. "But they can be difficult to see as a traveler, because catering (and waste disposal) is largely done behind the scenes."