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.