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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: Do Airlines Recycle Passenger Waste?

By Recyclebank |
During a flight, passengers fill mixed bags full of trash and recyclables. Here’s what you need to know about where it goes once you’re on the ground.

Dear Recyclebank: I just flew home from visiting family and noticed that there is a lot of trash, (including recyclables), that is tossed in trash bags when flight attendants make their rounds. Do airlines and other transportation entities recycle the disposables that people throw away as passengers? –Rita M.

Dear Rita: To be sure, waste isn’t only created on the ground. We already know that air travel has a significant impact on the environment; the EPA issued an official statement in 2016 that greenhouse-gas emissions from airplanes are a contributor to climate change. The disposables left behind by passengers may seem insignificant in comparison to burning jet fuel, but multiply your one or two plastic cups by the over two million passengers who travel via airplane everyday worldwide, and it certainly adds up to an enormous amount of material waste. World Environment Day, coming up on June 5 this year, encourages consumers to think about the effects of their (seemingly small) individual choices on the world as a whole. So, how does in-flight trash stack up, or should I say, pile up?

When the flight attendants collect your trash at the end of the flight, you may have seen it all end up in the same bag. This is a sign that recyclables might not be fully sorted out for processing. To add insult to injury, much of the packaging used for airline snacks isn’t easily recyclable. In 2010, the nonprofit Green America issued a report stating, “No airline has a comprehensive program for minimizing onboard waste.” It further clarified that at the time of the report, there were also no airlines that recycled items from all four major recyclable categories: Metal, Plastic, Paper, and Glass.

That said, a number of airlines are taking steps to improve their recycling statistics. Alaska Airlines reported in 2015 that they’d reached a 79% recycling rate. That’s getting somewhere. United Airlines states that in the passed seven years they’ve recycled 27.8 million pounds of waste combined from their flights and other areas of the company. Finally, Delta Airlines, which received a top grade of (B-) in the Green America report, (which tells us something about how much improvement is needed from other major airlines) has continued to increase their in-flight recycling rate, boosting it 6.8% in just one year from 2013 to 2014. With other airlines following suit, we can only hope the industry as a whole improves.

Until airlines catch up, one thing you can do about your contribution to a flight’s waste footprint is to carry your trash off the plane with you when you land and take advantage of recycling-collection options in the airport. You could even bring clean items home for your own bin. After all, keeping control of your own waste disposal is the best way to know where it’s going.

SOURCES: Environmental Protection Agency, Green America, FAA

Do you have a preferred airline? How do they deal with trash and recycling? Share your experiences in the comments.
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  • Jill H. 3 months ago
    I think about all those plastic cups every time I fly. It makes me sick. I am happy to hear that some efforts are being made to recycle. I try to stick to my stainless water bottle while flying.
  • Deborah W. 3 months ago
    I never really thought about it while flying - I guess - I thought they probably did with all the newspapers, magazines, plastic utensils left behind. Interesting. I always loved flying with Jet Blue (free headphones), then I went to several other airlines, the last time I flew was about 3 years ago and since there have been so many difficulties with passengers and crew, airplane crashes and other malfunctions - I don't look forward to my next trip. So - I am thinking - I will take my newspapers & magazines with me. Thanks.
  • Suzie S. 4 months ago
    As a retired flight attendant, I am a bit offended. Flight attendants try to recycle. Much as in the real world, it is the same one a plane. Many airlines do have specified bags for cans. Often flight attendants will put newspapers in a carrier or on a seat for recycling. Items on airlines are touched by numerous people from numerous areas. Taking your trash with you is one of the dumbest ideas I have EVER heard, so I can take it to a hotel with me, to a business meeting. Not feasible and DUMB.
    • Suzie S. 4 months ago
      I misspelled. As in the real world, if a flight attendant recycles at home, that person will be more likely to try to recycle on the flight. Flight attendants have no control over what happens to the trash and carriers once they get off the plane. I have read down to some comments and several of you do carry your trash off the plane. I admire that, but it is not feasible for many people flying. A family of 4 going on vacation, has enough stuff to take off the plane without taking trash. (They could be a bit cleaner on the plane also.) A fellow flight attendant and I would bring several bags of cans off the plane after our last flight of the trip. This was before any airline had recycling bags. Leave your magazines one the planes, often flight attendants take them and read and/or use on other flights. Another form of reuse, recycle, repurpose. As in most things, each person doing their little bit in their part of the world helps.
  • Sam B. 5 months ago
    Think of it this way. In April, my local recycler paid me seventy five cents per pound for aluminum cans. There are about 25 cans to a pound. These airlines all seem to be forever on the verge of bankruptcy, yet this is an example of literally throwing away money on some of the flights. This is one way that they could offset the bills a little.
  • erica m. 5 months ago
    I think the headline of this story should be changed. My first impression was that "passenger waste" had to do with the bathroom, ew.
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