What difference will it make if airlines achieve zero waste?

What difference will it make if airlines achieve zero waste?

Have you ever stopped to consider how much waste a single flight can accumulate? Just about everything on a flight in individually wrapped – in plastic! Except for the first and business class cabins, the cutlery is plastic, the headsets for watching television are wrapped in plastic, the blankets are wrapped in plastic and every little snack or condiment is individually wrapped in plastic or a plastic foil. It makes sense from a hygiene and convenience point of view, but all that plastic has to go somewhere once the flight lands and often very little of it is ever recycled.

A report from 2014 estimates that there are on average more than 102000 flights worldwide on a daily basis. Qantas recently admitted that a single flight between Sydney and Adelaide generates 34kg of waste. Considering how light plastic is, that’s a lot of waste! If 34kgs is a reflection of the average flight, it works out to more than 3822 tons of waste accumulated every day by airlines. And that’s a conservative estimate considering those figures are 5 years’ old and flights have increased by frequency on average 2,7% a year.

Is zero waste achievable?

The numbers are startling, especially since it’s probably not something most people consider. We’re all aware of harm caused by single use plastic water bottles or straws, but most people don’t give that plastic packaging on airline trays much thought. Considering the huge volume of flights and plastic waste generated, is a target of zero waste even achievable? Qantas seems to think so.

On 08 May 2019, Qantas Airlines made news headlines when they successfully operated their first zero waste flight between Adelaide and Sydney. Proving that zero waste is entirely possible. This is just the start of their plan to drastically reduce the amount of packaging and use biodegradable and compostable alternatives where packaging cannot be eliminated.

It is an ambitious plan too, aiming to cut 100-million single use plastic by 2020, and eliminate three quarters of waste generated by 2021. So how exactly do they plan to do it?

Zero waste partners

Their strategy is threefold: Firstly, eliminating unnecessary packaging such as individually wrapped vegemite and milk sachets. Secondly, by replacing single use plastic containers with biodegradable and compostable alternatives. And thirdly, recycling all plastic that is used, in a sustainable way.  To achieve this they have partnered with third parties who contribute their expertise in biodegradable packaging and recycling.

BioPak will provide paper cups lined with plastic made from plant matter which makes it fully compostable. Most paper cups are lined with plastics made from fossil fuels which then take much longer to degrade in landfills, if at all. BioPak are also supplying Bio Cane food containers for meals which are made from left over pulp from sugar cane refineries, and Bio Napkins made from Forest Stewardship Council certified pulp. Both of these items are fully compostable. Cutlery will no longer be made from plastic, instead, they will be made from starch sourced from non-GMO crops.  

For waste disposal and recycling Qantas has partnered with SUEZ. The objective is that all plastic, glass aluminum and plastic will be recycled into new products. The plastic that can’t be recycled will be transformed into a fuel which is used in cement kilns. Food waste and organic materials will be shredded and kept moist before it is composted. This compost will then be used on farms and gardens that supply food produce, effectively supporting a circular economy.

Achieving a single zero-waste flight is certainly an achievement but rolling out the plan across all routes and flights is no small task. One can only hope that Qantas’ example will inspire other airlines to follow suite and start to seriously consider alternatives to plastics. For those companies involved in recycling of any form, be it food waste or plastics, and for companies manufacturing bio containers, this is a golden opportunity to make inroads into a potentially massive market. Given that Qantas has already done a lot of the hard work, it won’t be a hard sell either – what are you waiting for?

There are more than 8500 flights operating in and around the UK daily. If these airlines were to follow the Qantas example just think of the opportunities for recycling companies and businesses!