Eleanor Parkes: Trash Landing

Strapped into a tiny seat on an aeroplane is not the easiest place to conduct a waste audit. Sorting, separating and tallying waste is always going to be messy and attract some odd looks wherever you do it. But as I was served another tray of plastic on my latest flight I really felt I had no choice. There was a painful irony in being en route to the United Nations Environment Assembly and producing as much waste in an hour as I would normally produce in a week.

Hugging our plastic cups closely so they wouldn’t be taken off us, our delegation made every reasonable effort to reduce our waste on this series of flights from New Zealand to Kenya, but we were still each responsible for an incredible and distressing amount of waste.

My waste audit - Auckland to Nairobi

My pile of guilt included twelve pieces of plastic cutlery, seven plastic cups, four large pieces of aluminium and a pretty disgusting assortment of plastic wrappers (mostly condiments I had not used and plastic considered necessary for hygiene reasons).  No food waste because aeroplane food is truly delicious.

Such a disgusting haul given that the solutions seemed so obvious. If they insisted on using plastic cutlery for convenience couldn’t it at least be recycled? Did the blankets really need to be individually wrapped in plastic? Could we not keep one cup for the duration of the flight?

On arriving in Nairobi I thought I’d better do my research before launching an anti-Thai Airways twitter campaign. My simple solutions quickly became complicated once I started learning about the challenges of reducing waste produced on flights. This is specifically called “deplaned waste” and there are all sorts of strict government regulations around processing it.

Deplaned waste from international flights must be dealt with on landing; it cannot be transported further to an airline’s processing or recycling base because of quarantine restrictions. In Australia, for example, waste or recyclables that have come into contact with food products cannot be processed because of the risk of introducing plant pests and diseases. Thus if an airline wants to sort their waste into recyclables/plastic/paper/food then they need the airports to cooperate and need to be provided with a way of sorting and processing waste at every airport the airline uses. Airports can opt to sterilise their recyclables before processing them, but this is hardly environmentally friendly.

Deplaned waste can contribute up to 40% of an airport's total solid waste stream. Some airports have taken steps of their own volition to improve their waste management, including Auckland airport which has some mildly ambitious targets to be achieved by 2020. The Office of Airports of the Federal Aviation Administration maintains we are unlikely to see widespread changes until there are international standards of collection and regulation, which may well be true but a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, without flexibility, would have its own limitations.

None of this however lets airlines completely off the hook. With relative ease they could keep food waste separate from recyclables inflight so the recyclables do not become ‘contaminated’ and thus wouldn’t need to be incinerated to comply with government regulations. It can simply be incorporated into the airports recycling streams. Airlines can reuse the newspapers or discourage the use of multiple cups, the products should be selected with responsible waste management in mind, and it would also be very simple to give blankets/pillows/headsets/travel kits to people only on request.

Many airlines concerned with their environmental impact (and/or at least wanting to be seen to be concerned with their environmental impact) have addressed some of the easier issues. Qantas recently implemented recycling and composting systems and was able to reduce its waste to landfill by 20% in four years.

Overall there really is a lot more that could be done, by airports and airlines alike, to take better responsibility for the huge amounts of waste they send to landfills. As for my return flights, responsible waste management will largely be up to the airline as Auckland Airport where I will land has a newly established aircraft cabin waste recycling facility. Since its installation in 2015 half of the deplaned waste entering the facility has been recovered, so now it is up to the airlines to use this service.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on May 22, 2016 and filed under UNEA 2016.