Airline recycling efforts are being stifled by factors including a lack of suitable infrastructure and outdated regulations

Airlines have been involved in recycling for years. But their progressive attitude to waste must be mirrored by the entire aviation community if recycling efforts are to reach their full potential.

Results from individual recycling programs show airlines’ commitment. In 2010, Cathay Pacific recycled 33,244 kilograms of aluminum cans, 29,609 kilograms of plastic bottles, and 22,050 kilograms of plastic cups. It also reuses menu covers that are in good condition.

In Europe, Virgin Atlantic’s work with MNH Sustainable Cabin Services has generated innovative solutions. In 2009, more than 550 tonnes of cabin waste was diverted from landfill. Reconditioned and recycled items include the ear sponges from broken headsets, which are used to surface training areas in equestrian centers. Any CDs found are recycled and used in traffic light lenses. Virgin’s aim, announced in 2007, is to recycle or reuse 50% of waste generated during a flight. In the United States, United Continental recycles about 572 tonnes of inflight waste a year. In its catering kitchens, more than 1,500 tonnes of cardboard was recycled in 2010.

American Airlines has posted similarly impressive results. It recycled more than a million pounds of airline magazines last year, and 96,000 pounds of unused customs forms were converted to recycled paper. Pillows and blankets went to homeless shelters and carpets to animal shelters, while flight attendants gathered more than 15 million aluminum cans, equivalent in weight to five Boeing 737s.
This is only a snapshot of airlines’ dedication to environmental mitigation; many carriers post comparable figures. But, impressive as the figures are, they could be even better with a little assistance.

Valuable real estate

American Airlines’ efforts highlight one of the main problems. The aluminum cans it gathers have to be flown back to the airline’s hubs that have recycling centers, as many airports still lack the requisite recycling infrastructure to realize the potential in airline programs.

“The industry is united in its environmental position,” says Paul Steele, IATA’s Director, Aviation Environment. “Airlines, airports and manufacturers must follow through this commitment and work together to enhance recycling efforts.”

Airports have been much better at recycling initiatives for retail operations. The same level of service has not been available for airline clients. And, with real estate becoming ever more valuable, it might prove difficult to build the recycling centers necessary for an efficient operation. It means most waste tends to get put in one place. Some airports, such as Seattle-Tacoma, are taking a leading role. It is estimated to have saved $200,000 through recycling rather than simply sending waste to landfill.

US carriers are working closely with their airport partners to address this. Meetings have been held through the Air Transport Association (ATA) with the Environmental Protection Agency in attendance to develop strategies for overcoming the infrastructure challenge. The Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) was set up to research additional opportunities and actions that airlines and airports can take to improve the recycling of onboard materials.

“Our airlines’ commitment to environmental stewardship extends to all areas, including recycling,” says ATA Vice President of Environmental Affairs, Nancy Young. “While our members already have extensive recycling programs, ATA and its members are working closely with airports to address local infrastructure issues to make recycling of onboard materials more available.”


A second drawback will be even more challenging to resolve. Animal health and quarantine laws in many countries simply prevent recycling from international flights. In the United Kingdom, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has just reviewed its guidance for international catering waste but a British Airways spokesperson says the regulations are “still restrictive”. Essentially, European waste regulations make it impossible to recycle items arriving from outside the EU that have been in contact with food.

In Australia, catering waste is still quarantined even though a 1996 report recommended the area be studied to allow certain foodstuffs to be treated normally. And in the United States, waste from an international flight is usually discarded at the first airport it lands at on US territory, often being incinerated.

Despite regulatory handcuffs, airlines are trying to work around the issue. Air New Zealand and Qantas use a type of plastic cutlery that can be washed and reused up to eight times. Although disposable plastic cutlery is lighter, so cuts down on onboard weight, it usually can’t be reused. Glass and metal can be reused but are heavier. The Air New Zealand option is the best of both worlds. Even here, though, authorities watch the program closely and have expressed concerns over the health and safety implications of reusable plastic.

 “IATA is working with stakeholders to assist airline recycling efforts,” says Steele. “All partners have an interest in ensuring as much onboard waste as possible gets recycled or reused. IATA recently completed a study of airline cabin waste management practices, assessing the nature and scale of this environmental challenge and suggesting ways forward.”

The beauty of waste

Unnecessarily destroying waste or sending it to landfill is important as aviation heads toward a biofuel future. British Airways and the Solena Group are working together to transform waste into biofuel. The less waste is destroyed, the greater the potential conversion to biofuel. DEFRA has set a 2020/21 target of 25% for energy recovery from municipal waste, so guidance that allows airlines to fully utilize their onboard recycling efforts would be appreciated.

Aside from a change in quarantine laws and extra on-site facilities at airports, more can be done to improve recycling efforts. Dr Mark Watson, Head of Environmental Affairs, Cathay Pacific Airways, says the aviation value chain must help. “We should encourage suppliers to take back their own products—such as the plastic trays in economy class—for recycling,” he says. “We also need innovative designs of aircraft equipment that allow for the sorting and storage of inflight waste.”
Cooperative efforts with governments, airports, manufacturers, and suppliers would yield enormous environmental benefits. Wasting waste has to stop.