In-flight Trash: Airlines and Landfills
In February, a report released by Green America illuminated the airline industry in a rather poor light.
The report collected data from 11 major carriers and estimates that each passenger generates about 1.3 lb. (0.59kg) of waste per flight. 75% of that waste is made up of recyclable trash, but only 20% gets recycled.
Although all carriers admit the importance of recycling, none cited in the report have a program to collect the 4 major categories of recyclables (paper, glass, plastic, aluminum).
According to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), each year, U.S. airlines throw out enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747s. That's a lot of wasted "raw" material.
The problem is, the trash needs to be sorted on board the plane. If not, then all of it goes into a landfill.
Airlines are still trying to come up with cost-effective and environmentally friendly solutions to address the need to recycle and yet another need to reduce the cost of waste disposal. Sometimes, the solution seems counter-productive.
A case in point is Quantas, which distributes a rather fancy looking, single-use, only partly biodegradable trash bag (the airline says it's working on a fully biodegradable one) to each passenger, asking passengers to put in it all non-recyclable waste (food scraps, chewing gum, snot rags, etc.), but a system of waste management that creates more trash isn't logical. Quantas should be commended for its good intentions, but this system of giving each passenger a single-use trash bag needs more tinkering.
It appears that small, regional airlines do a much better job than major carriers. For example, Horizon Air started its onboard-recycling program in the 80s. Today, the Seattle-based regional airline, which didn't make it as a major airliner on the Green America rankings, recycles about 70% of all onboard waste.
Understandably, major airline carriers generate more trash because they have more of everything: flights, passengers, destinations, etc. This means that if and when major carriers figure out a solution to sorting and recycling trash, then they would truly create a positive impact on the environment.
In this day and age of global economies and multi-national corporations, air travel is essential to many fields of business. It's not realistic to reduce or eliminate air travel, but it is possible to design waste disposal systems that are more eco-friendly. So, hopefully, the big guns in the airline industry figure out a viable recycling program, sooner than later.