Recent studies and documentaries have offered a glimpse into the growing expanse of waste sweeping across our oceans. Yet as we gaze into the depths of this issue, we might forget about what lies above.
While more a convenience than a memorable experience for most of us, in-flight dining does leave a lasting mark on the environment. According to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the average airline passenger generates 1.43 kg of waste. Considering this, and the fact that a record 4.1 billion airline passengers were recorded in 2017, we can estimate that approximately 5.8 million metric tonnes of cabin waste were generated last year. This includes unconsumed food and beverages, plastic utensils, packaging and lavatory waste, among other waste items.
Cabin waste continues to grow annually in line with passenger increases, according to Assistant Director of Environment at IATA, Jon Godson.
“In the absence of any change in regulations, it’s set to double in the next 15 years.”
This 1.43 kg estimate is a ‘very ballpark figure’, according to Godson, who says it was formed through a 2013 airline waste audit at Heathrow Airport. However, owing to the difficulty involved in arranging audits and subsequently, the lack of them, this is one of the few available estimates.
IRELAND’S INCOMING WASTE
If this estimate is applied to Irish airports, which saw 34.4 million passengers pass through in 2017, 48,000 metric tonnes of waste came off airplanes landing here last year. However, it’s difficult to form anything more than an estimate. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture – the body responsible for licencing and inspecting landers, transporters and disposal sites dealing with International Catering Waste (ICW) – says the department ‘does not hold figures on what volume of material is taken from aircraft in Ireland.’
Additionally, Irish airlines will not disclose their cabin waste figures. According to Director of Communications with Aer Lingus Ruth Ranson, the company doesn’t make such data public.
“Aer Lingus is working to ensure greater waste reduction. The introduction of multi-sector bars in 2015 resulted in a 33 per cent reduction in inflight waste,” she adds, saying that an inflight service review to further consider waste reduction has recently commenced.
While Ryanair would also not disclose such data, Head of Communications Robin Kiely cites their recently launched Environmental Policy, which outlines their commitment to become the first airline to eliminate the use of non-recyclable plastics across operations within the next five years.
“We are working with our suppliers to source alternative packaging including cutlery, cups etc., which we will roll out in-flight and at our offices by 2023,” he says. “Our stock ordering system minimises waste by only ordering the stock we will need, and we also carry a large number of ambient products with long shelf lives.”
LAW OF THE LAND
In light of increasing recognition of the issue of waste, the EU have conjured up some new proposals. For example, the European Commission’s Single-Use Plastic Directive will ban certain single-use plastic products from the market, alongside other measures.However, the introduction of more sustainable waste measures in the aviation industry could be a turbulent battle. Waste reduction measures and plastic alternatives may be introduced but recycling cabin waste is no mean feat. At present, very little cabin waste is recycled.
The reasons why are multi-fold. EU legislation developed to prevent outbreaks of animal disease – which could occur through feeding contaminated food waste to animals – currently dictates how catering waste is treated when it lands on new shores. Under these EU Animal By-Product (ABP) Regulations, waste arriving from outside of the EU is classed as a Category 1 ABP, which is the highest risk category. Incineration, co-incineration or burial in an authorised landfill are the only permitted disposal methods for this waste.
Catering waste transported within the EU is classified as a Category 3 ABP, meaning that it is low-risk and some could potentially be recycled. However, many countries take absolute caution and treat all waste as high-risk. Such is the case in Ireland, as confirmed by the Department of Agriculture following a query from this newspaper.
“Waste from flights outside the EU and inside the EU are treated equally in Ireland as Category 1 ABP as it is not practical to determine the earlier destinations that the plane has been to and verify where food and passengers etc. have originated from.”
The Department currently lists Indaver Waste-to-Energy Facility in Duleek, Co Meath and Covanta Waste-to-Energy in Poolbeg as authorised incinerators for ICW, and Bord Na Mona’s Drehid Waste Management Facility (Kildare), Knockharley Landfill Limited (Meath) and Powerstown Landfill Site (Carlow) as authorised landfill sites. ICW also includes waste landing at Irish ports.
The law isn’t the only hurdle. According to former Irish Air Corps officer and current DCU lecturer in Aviation, Lt Col Kevin Byrne, lack of space on airplanes makes waste separation challenging.
“If we want to recycle, we have to increase the size of the space allocated for it so we can separate different streams of waste on-board the aircraft,” explains Byrne, who also serves as International President of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT).
Time demands, particularly on short-haul flights, also don’t lend themselves well to waste segregation measures, says Byrne, who explains that cabin crew already have a very heavy workload.
“It seems like a small element but it does have a huge effect on the efficiency of an aircraft.”
To introduce segregation measures would also require staff training, according to Odile Le Bolloch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who notes that the EPA does not currently work with the aviation industry on waste matters.
“You would need to train cabin crew to segregate the waste and be 100 per cent sure there’s no mixing taking place,” says Le Bolloch, who manages the EPA’s Stop Food Waste programme.
A lack of uniformity between countries could also prove challenging if segregation and recycling was to be universally introduced.
“Not only is there a need for infrastructure on planes, but also in airports. If you’re flying into different airports, each with a different system for waste management, it could make things quite difficult,” says Le Bolloch.
NEED FOR CHANGE
It’s clear that the barriers to reducing and recycling cabin waste are aplenty but according to Byrne, there’s a need for change. Acknowledging that the issue has been ‘neglected for a long time’, he says that the aviation industry should emulate any sustainable changes made by the catering industry on the ground.
“Effectively in a plane, you have a fast-food chain in the sky. It focuses on lightweight things and getting it all out fast,” he says. “Airlines will have to make a special effort and have a portion of the aircraft where waste can be separated. It will mean extra work, effort and redesign but it should be the norm as long as ground-based restaurants do the same thing.”
We could also reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place by using glassware and metal utensils across the cabin, he suggests. While acknowledging this would add weight to the plane, Byrne believes it could be feasible.
“It’s not sustainable to continue to do what we are doing at the moment.”
However, Godson is not positive this substitution would be any better for the environment.
“If we move from disposable plates and cutlery to rotables, the weight difference is significant. Weight increases fuel burn, if you increase that, you increase CO2. On top of that, we would have to install dishwashers, which would have detergents causing water pollution and increase CO2 through heating water.”
“We are calling for debate with the Commission to discuss what is the best environmental option and see if this [suggestion] is simply a displacement.”
Godson suggests other cabin waste reduction options such as meal selection at check-in, feeding passengers in airport terminals before flying and better passenger profiling to determine what frequent fliers consume.
While acknowledging the importance of EU legislation, Godson says that we should consider trading the highly cautious approach with a risk-based approach that does not compromise animal welfare.
“I think the law trumps everything. We have to respect that,” echoes Le Bolloch. Rather than easing up on the legislation, she suggests the need for clear guidance on low-risk waste segregation. In the UK, this has been done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she notes.
Ultimately, Le Bolloch says that change needs to come from within the industry and be supported by other key players.
“We can’t go in and try to do these things without working with industry, as we have no idea of their challenges.”
Elsewhere in the EU, some moves are being made to tackle this issue. For example, between September 2016 and December 2019, the “Zero Cabin Waste” Project will run at Madrid’s Barajas airport. The project, which is led by Iberia and co-financed by the EU through the LIFE Programme, aims to reduce the amount of low-risk cabin waste sent to landfill. This will be achieved by introducing separation trollies, staff training and other supports that make recycling feasible. Once complete, it is hoped that the model will be rolled out in London’s Heathrow Airport and potentially elsewhere.
As the first airport to achieve a Zero Waste to Landfill accreditation from the Carbon Trust, Gatwick Airport is also leading the way. Along with reducing and recycling waste when possible, they opened a £3.8 million waste management plant last year, becoming the first airport worldwide to convert Category 1 airline waste into energy on-site.
With no clear plans to change the way we handle airplane catering waste in Ireland, whether we can significantly reduce our growing waste pile is a question that remains up in the air. Yet, as airlines form plans to reduce the amount of packaging generated in the first place, so too can passengers. Eating in advance, refilling reusable flasks in the terminal before boarding, refusing straws and plastic cups on-board and making special dietary requests known prior to long-haul travel are just some ways to reduce your trash trail. Consumer awareness of waste problems has reached great heights in recent times and perhaps that’s where the real change will commence: from the ground up.
(First published by the Sunday Business Post on July 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.businesspost.ie/magazine/plastic-planes-421313 )