Solid Waste Management brings greener skies

The airline industry, which led in reducing its carbon footprint, is now taking leadership in Solid Waste Management (SWM).

The waste generated through air travel exceeded 5.7 million tons in 2016. Most went to landfills or was incinerated. The amount, estimated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), is roughly equivalent to the combined weight of every car in Chicago. It could double by 2030.

Passengers routinely discard the plastic utensils, slightly-used toothbrushes, and tiny beverage bottles enjoyed en route. The airlines handling all of that are discovering ways to limit the amounts headed to the landfill.

Airline SWM initiatives

  • Reduced packaging

    Iberia and other airlines have developed a 3-year plan to separate and recover 80% of the waste that accompanies passengers arriving at Madrid. The initiative involves training and participation by 2,500 cabin crew members.

  • Materials and recycling

    If you have flown on United Airlines lately, you may have noticed their use of compostable paper cups. Did you fly business class, and not bother with the amenity kit? United donates those unused kits to homeless and women’s shelters. That’s part of its effort to divert more than 29.7 waste tons each year.

    Both Gatwick and Heathrow airports In London target 70% recycling by 2020.

    A surprising variety of materials is being recycled. Virgin Airways recycles ear sponges and other headset parts. Those become flooring for equestrian stables.

  • Waste to energy

    London Gatwick now has a waste-to-energy plant. This reduces the weight and mass of waste trucked away from the airport. The facility generates power rather than cost. The electricity it generates may one day help to heat Gatwick’s north terminal.

Despite the many and varied SWM initiatives, the growth and resulting accumulation of airline waste continues. The IATA estimates the annual cost of cabin waste at $500 million. Due to increased disposal costs, the half-billion-dollar expense grows even faster than the mountains of waste.

Who can help?

  • Lawmakers

    Animal health legislation in Britain requires that coffee cups be incinerated or buried in a landfill. Current legislation classifies containers as hazardous waste if milk might have been served in them. This is in response to the threat of importing foot and mouth and other diseases. Similar laws prohibit distribution of uneaten food to charity.

    If laws can better classify health risks of cabin waste, and if airlines continue strict hygiene standards. less landfill disposal and more recycling will be possible.

  • Ground crew

    Classification can also be improved through better procedures on the ground. The origin tagging of rubbish bags at East Midlands and Gatwick airports keeps waste from being combined and thereby subject to the strictest definitions of hazardous waste.

  • Cabin crew

    The cabin crew must consistently and correctly sort discarded containers and utensils. The success of any recycling program depends on how attentive they are to that detail.

  • Management

    Looking beyond unit price, when management focuses on a product’s full life cost, the investment in durable, reusable headsets and blankets reduces waste. Similar long-term thinking and investments can reduce environmental impact and improve customer perception of that airline.

Alexa Stone
LEED AP, Sustainable Facility Professional, Envision Sustainability Professional - - Alexa has more than 25 years of experience in sustainable and Smart Cities development. Her strategic planning work has served local, state, and federal government, higher education, and private industry. Alexa founded ecoPreserve in 2009 as a team of 3 and has grown the company to over a dozen of the brightest sustainability and project management professionals in the industry.
Alexa Stone


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