Improved environmental measures to deal with cabin waste are only possible if regulations are risk-based and globally consistent

Plastic-free flights have grabbed the headlines in recent months. Etihad, for example, flew from its Abu Dhabi HQ to Brisbane without any plastics onboard, using such alternatives as edible coffee cups. It intends to remove 80% of single-use plastics (SUPs) by the end of 2022.

Tony Douglas, Etihad Group CEO, notes: “We discovered we could remove 27 million SUP lids from our inflight service a year and… it’s our responsibility to act on this, to challenge industry standards and work with suppliers to provide lower-impact alternatives.”

Air France has, meanwhile, committed to the elimination of 210 million SUP items by the end of 2019, Delta will get rid of 136 tonnes of SUP onboard and in lounges in the same time period, and by 2021 100 million SUP items will disappear from Qantas flights. Many other airlines have started similar initiatives as they seek alternative, sustainable options.

According to estimates by IATA, airlines generated around 6.1m tonnes (6.7m US tons) of cabin waste in 2018, of which at least 20% was food and drink that had gone unused.

“We recognize that SUPs have become a big issue, but replacing these items is not always as easy as it might appear”

-Alexandre de Juniac, IATA, Director General and CEO

Demonstrable benefit

Although airlines are committed to reducing SUP, the issue is not as clear cut as might first appear.

Getting rid of SUPs must show a demonstrable environmental benefit with alternatives also meeting safety and hygiene standards. Wooden stirrers instead of plastic ones is an easy win. But such instances are rare. Most of the numerous inflight products that use plastic present a real dilemma.

Paper cups, for example, have an internal plastic coating to stop the liquid leaking from the cup. This makes recycling and composting challenging, if not impossible, in most regions.

An obvious alternative is glass. But glass weighs a lot more than plastic or paper and the heavier the aircraft, the greater the fuel burn, and the higher the emissions. This dynamic can be seen in cargo too, where tarpaulin—the alternative to a plastic shrink-wrapped pallet—is far heavier. In other words, some SUPs can be easily replaced but others are far more challenging. SUP bags are used to collect washroom, galley and cleaning waste, for example, and alternatives need to be robust and waterproof to ensure there are no leaks onto the cabin floor.

And should there be viable alternatives, international waste regulations often insist that cabin wastes need to be landfilled or incinerated anyway, negating any positive environmental effect.

Meanwhile, ICAO’s guidance on Security Tamper Evident Bags (STEB) for duty free purchases states that the bags should be made from transparent low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or equivalent, but it’s not clear if there are any equivalents currently available.

Air France has, meanwhile, committed to the elimination of 210 million single-use plastics items by the end of 2019

Layered regulations

Simplifying and coordinating regulations will be essential if airlines’ ability to respond to these challenges is to improve.

There has been a surge in SUP legislation with 127 countries imposing restrictions on non-biodegradable SUPs—such as the thickness of the plastic—but few are aligned in any way. So, plastics that are permittable on the outbound flight may not necessarily be allowed on an inbound segment or vice versa.

Moreover, 27 countries have banned SUP products, including plates, cups, straws, and such materials as polystyrene. The expectation is that the number of countries imposing bans will double in a short space of time. Airports and civil aviation authorities are adding to the confusion by applying their own SUP constraints.

In some instances, it is hard to know whether the SUP ban includes international or domestic flights and arriving as well as departing flights. It is also unclear if STEBs are affected and even plastics carried by passengers or packed in their baggage.

And even if airlines can find paper or biodegradable solutions, there must be appropriate facilities to recycle paper and support composting at airports.

“It is vital that governments consult with the sector to ensure that their regulatory proposals promote alternatives to SUP that are sustainable, safe, and hygienic and are harmonized across international aviation,” says Jon Godson, IATA’s Assistant Director, Aviation Environment.

“It’s our responsibility to challenge industry standards and work to provide alternatives”

-Tony Douglas, Etihad Group, CEO

Innovative solutions

Airlines are meanwhile exploring a number of innovative solutions of their own to reduce cabin waste. A forthcoming Cabin Waste handbook from IATA actually lists 27 separate initiatives. Suppliers are also being pressurized to find new processes and products that will reduce the industry’s overall environmental footprint.

To help airlines solve the dilemma of SUPs, IATA is studying the possibility of a sectoral approach to the lifecycle assessment of inflight products so airlines can base their service offerings on the overall environmental benefit. IATA will also provide guidance on the application of harmonized smarter single-use plastic legislation for discussion with regulators.

Ultimately, “though seeking sustainable alternatives to SUP, the industry should prioritize efforts to reduce cabin waste in the first place, starting with the 20% of inflight food and drink that is untouched and ends up being landfilled or incinerated,” Godson says.

This could have a knock-on effect on efforts to raise awareness of the responsible approach to aviation’s environmental impact. “A visible lack of cabin waste reuse could impact passengers’ confidence in our ability to reduce our invisible emissions,” concludes Godson.

“It is vital that States consult with the sector to ensure that their regulatory proposals promote safe, sustainable alternatives to SUP”

- Jon Godson, IATA, Assistant Director, Aviation Environment


Discussion on… Meeting the SUP challenge

In May 2019, over 150 participants attended the Sustainable Cabin Forum 2019 organised by Hi Fly and the Mirpuri Foundation, in partnership with IATA.

Following the success of their plastic-free flight trials in December 2018, Hi Fly President, Paulo Mirpuri, stated the Forum had been conceived: “to share knowledge and best practices across airlines, airports, catering companies, manufacturers and industry regulators in a bid to discuss single-use plastic and catering waste resulting from the worldwide air-carriage of passengers”.

IATA Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, commented that: “This is an important first step in bringing together industry leaders and regulators: While we all recognize that cabin waste and single-use plastics have become a big issue for us, replacing these items is not always as easy as it might appear, and we should be aware that there is always the possibility of causing unintended environmental damage. However, efforts to go green can also be hindered by regulation, and we must ensure we seek a smart regulatory approach to sustainability.”


Image credit: Getty

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