Asymmetric regulation hampers single-use plastic replacement

The inappropriate disposal of single-use plastics (SUP) and its impact on the marine environment is a key challenge for our times.

According to the United Nations Economic Program (UNEP), there is about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year. Research by the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates that plastic production will double in the next 20 years and with low global plastic recycling rates, much of this could end up in the oceans. Worse, plastic in the oceans decomposes slowly and will represent a threat to marine life for hundreds of years.

Even though cabin waste is subject to strict controls that minimize the risk of plastics from aviation being dumped in the sea, airlines stand ready with passengers to take on the challenge of replacing SUP with more sustainable alternative inflight products. However, a number of regulatory and technical barriers are impeding progress.


SUP replacement

Although SUP products are widely used in aviation, offering a wide variety of benefits including being safe, hygienic and lightweight, over the last five years at least 27 IATA airlines began SUP replacement initiatives. The pandemic reversed this trend with regulators mandating the use of SUP masks and sealed food and drink.

To further complicate matters, airlines are being challenged by asymmetric SUP regulations.

Airports, regional authorities, and national governments around the globe are rushing to introduce SUP rules. In the absence of coordination and cooperation, this has left airlines with a problem. Do they comply with the restrictions at the airport of departure or arrival?

Furthermore, aviation security mandates the use of certain SUP products including re-sealable plastic bags for liquids, aerosols, and gels (LAGs) and secure, tamper-evident bags (STEBs) for duty-free products.

Moreover, there is no evidence that regulations are taking transport-related emissions into account on a lifecycle assessment (LCA) basis, since replacement with reusable products invariably lead to enhanced CO2 generation. In effect, airlines could inadvertently contribute to pollution displacement, from a perceived marine issue into a climate change one.

International Catering Waste (ICW) regulations add an additional layer of complexity. Waste from international flights is often labelled biohazardous, requiring incineration, sterilization, or deep landfill burial. This means that alternative single-use items, including biodegradable crockery and cutlery can’t be re-used, recycled or biotreated.

Airlines are reporting that alternative products are expensive, not available at scale or have dubious sustainability benefits.


UNEP agreement

The situation could be improved in 2024. That is when the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has committed to finalize a legally binding agreement on the lifecycle of plastics—from production to disposal.

At the 78th IATA AGM in Doha, Qatar, Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of the Economy Division, UNEP, explained the importance of the proposed agreement. “There is a lot that can be done with the lifecycle of plastic,” she said. “The agreement would start the transition to a circular plastic industry.”

Upstream, it is about moving away from using fossil fuels to produce plastic. One estimate suggests that 20% of the world’s oil could be used to produce plastic by 2050. There are a number of additives in the plastic production process too. Some will be necessary—enabling the plastic to be shaped, for example—but others may be superfluous or have sustainable alternatives.

Mid-stream, it is about re-use. This is most often seen in plastic bottles, but the concept could be extended.

Downstream, it is about having recycling options. A major problem is the chemicals released. Dealing with these is not only very expensive but comes with its own, huge carbon footprint, defeating the purpose.


Best practices

Aggarwal-Khan suggested that the industry should set itself targets to push governments into setting the appropriate policies to help them achieve those targets and to contribute to the plastic treaty negotiation process to ensure its concerns about asymmetry are addressed.

Already, the Sustainability and Environment Advisory Council (SEAC) has formed a Sustainable Cabin Working Group that aims to identify and review cabin waste and SUP issues and emerging legislation and technology. The Working Group will provide a platform for airlines to share best practices and advise on areas that require technical support, research or regulatory engagement. Guidance on the harmonization of SUP regulations for regulators is already available.

Jon Godson, IATA’s Assistant Director, Sustainability, says, that “inappropriate and asymmetric regulations are the main challenge on improving cabin waste performance, contributing to the circular economy and replacing SUPs with sustainable alternatives. Airlines and their service providers need to coordinate actions to promote regulatory change, provide demand signals to the emerging market for sustainable products, and encourage the development of appropriate recycling, reuse and recovery infrastructure.

“The lack of a global product sustainability standard, which can be used to demonstrate not only product integrity, composition, and hygiene but also environmental benefits, including emissions, biomass certification, and recycled content, will impede investment and replacement,” Godson concludes.


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