Airlines should do more to improve their dismal waste recycling policies, says US consumer watchdog
Wed 24 Feb 2010 – With a typical passenger generating 1.3 pounds (0.6kg) of waste per flight, US airlines create over 880 million pounds (400,000 tonnes) of waste annually, of which 75 percent could be recycled but only 20 percent actually takes place. This is the main finding of a report, ‘What goes up must go down: The sorry state of recycling in the airline industry’, published by Green America’s consumer watchdog website ResponsibleShopper.org. The report ranks 11 major airlines on their recycling efforts and offers suggestions the industry can take to improve recycling overall, as well as action airline passengers can adopt to improve recycling. It rates Delta, Virgin and Southwest as doing the best job, with United and US Airways at the bottom of the list.
Overall, says the report, airlines could recycle nearly 500 million pounds (227,000 tonnes) more waste each year – half of it in-flight waste. While airlines acknowledge the importance of recycling waste, it finds no airline that recycles all the major recyclables: aluminium cans, glass, plastic and paper. Nor does it find an airline with a comprehensive programme for minimizing or composting food waste, that provides good public information about their recycling programme, or reports on progress in relation to any stated goals.
Green America Responsible Shopper Lead Researcher Victoria Kreha said: “The good news is that airlines are starting to pay attention to recycling; the bad news is that they have a long way to go to improve the situation. Fortunately, airlines can overcome any of the challenges to creating in-flight recycling programmes, including employee education and involvement, knowledge of the type of waste produced, and a time- and space-efficient system.”
Green America Corporate Responsibility Director Todd Larsen said: “While airlines may face some challenges in creating effective recycling programs, evidence shows that working systems can be implemented. Our report demonstrates that several airlines are significantly ahead of their competitors in taking these steps, and it is clear that comprehensive recycling programs can be implemented effectively and economically.”
The report looks at five areas: variety in waste recycled, future in-flight recycling plans, size of in-flight recycling programme, education/encouragement of employees in onboard recycling programmes, other in-flight sustainability initiatives, and provides overall rankings.
The airlines evaluated, in order of ranking (from best to worst), were Delta Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, JetBlue, American Airlines, British Airways, AirTran, United Airlines and US Airways.
None of the airlines reviewed received a ResponsibleShopper grade higher than B-. However, the report highlights a few positive signs to show that airlines are stepping up their efforts.
Delta, for example, recycles aluminium cans, plastic bottles, plastic trays, beverage cups, newspapers and magazines on flights landing at many of the major US airports. While American Airlines has limited in-flight recycling initiatives as a company, the report notes its flight attendants took it on themselves to create an aluminium can recycling programme that benefits charity.
British Airlines set a bold goal of sending zero waste to landfills in the UK by 2010, notes the report. “Although it has a long way to go, it shows that airlines can lay out a big vision and develop real strategies to reach it.”
While Southwest’s in-flight recycling is limited, Southwest’s on-ground recycling includes batteries, electronics, and used oil. Virgin America has eliminated in-flight magazines to prevent waste (reducing waste is even better than recycling, says the report), and it has an in-flight green team that works to increase sustainability awareness.
The report recommends a number of industry and consumer actions to help improve the recycling of waste. It says the airline industry as a whole – including its trade associations, the Air Transport Association (ATA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – should encourage their members to adopt goals for recycling or composting that will lead to overall industry resource recovery of 50% of waste by 2012, and zero waste by 2020.
“This goal can be achieved through greater use of recyclable and compostable materials on flights, and increased coordination between airports and airlines in separating and processing waste,” it suggests. “Even on international flights, it is entirely possible to institute recycling programmes that do not conflict with government requirements (and the ATA and IATA can play a role in these discussions with the government). The ATA and IATA should also work with airports in order to improve their cooperation in recycling.”