It was our first time flying with Malaysian Airlines - first a 12 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and then a 3 hour flight to Manila. Our round the world trip was off to a great start! There was impressive leg room, a fantastic film selection and even 3 amazing free meals for each of us as well! Oh... but unfortunately a bunch of single use plastics that came with them...
We're all aware of the enormous issue of air travel's carbon footprint (which doesn't make us proud to be jet-setting back to South East Asia), but what about it's relationship with plastic waste? In this blog post, we'll be sharing our experience with this plastic waste on aeroplanes, why it matters so much to step away from single use plastics and what can be done about it by each of us, and airlines themselves!
From disposable plastic cutlery and water in tiny plastic pots, to blankets and headphones also all wrapped in plastic - there was just so much plastic!
The worst part of it was that it was likely all non-recyclable and simply thrown away with the rest of the waste on board.
Why Is This Even Important?
At every stage in plastics' life-cycle, there is clear cause for concern. To start, crude oil is extracted out of the ground, which is refined into petrol, diesel and jet fuel amongst other things. Plastic is almost always petroleum based and therefore has a strong linkage to non-renewable fossil fuels and green house gas emissions.
From crude oil, the next step often involves processing plastic into tiny pellets for other products to be made at a later date. These tiny plastic pellets are shipped around the world on huge cargo ships, and it's not uncommon for cargo to spill into the ocean. Products made from these tiny pellets are incredibly durable and long-lasting, but it's this durability that has sadly lead to highly polluted eco-systems with the plastics never truly going 'away'.
It's not that plastic doesn't break down - it does - but it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of micro-plastics, eventually entering the food chain at a microscopic level, if it hasn't already been ingested by turtles, seabirds and other marine life.
An issue on top of this is the recycling process... A vast amount of our plastic waste is shipped all the way back around the world for developing countries to deal with, only for it to pile up in landfills due to it being so difficult to recycle and manage. Aluminium on the other hand is much more widely recycled and is also infinitely recyclable, whilst plastic is only ever down-cycled.
The Issue With Airlines
According to The Guardian, 5.2 million tonnes of waste was generated by airlines in 2016 - most of which went to landfill or incinerators at a huge cost of £400 million! Surely, with that statistic in mind, it should be in their interest to reuse and recycle more?
Of course, airlines want to uphold their costumers' satisfaction and meet their customers' expectations, and we would argue that ditching the flimsy, throw away cups and plastic pots for reusable cups would lead to a considerably higher customer satisfaction rate.
But is it hard for airlines to reuse and recycle because of hygiene reasons or international health regulations? Well, whilst the cups for water and soft drinks were disposable, the mugs for tea and coffee were being reused throughout the flight, and quite possibly on future flights. So what’s the difference?
Why is it that water refills cannot be offered? Convenience? But what about water in aluminium cans? Did you know that water is now widely available in aluminium cans? Amazing right?! Non-toxic, endlessly recyclable, aluminium cans!
This issue isn't just with water though... And recycling isn't always the answer... Airlines have already proven that with their disregard for it...
So, What Can Be Done?
Reusable cutlery. Just like in restaurants, you can wash and reuse them. Many airlines opt out of metal cutlery for weight reasons, and therefore any extra costs in fuel. Nonetheless, some airlines do in fact still use metal cutlery, especially for their business and premium class passengers. But reusable doesn't necessarily have to mean metal, and what if they were made from already recycled materials in the first place?
Reusable cups. This not only reduces the amount of single use plastic, it could reduce the cost of the airlines' waste disposal. Again, a reusable alternative could be used instead, alongside passengers reusable water bottles. Now, not everyone will bring a reusable bottle while travelling but giving the option could encourage more people to do so.
Sell drinks in cans; not plastic bottles. And, hopefully, a change is made in what is sold at airports too, so no unnecessary single use plastic is being brought on board.
No plastic wrapping for headphones and blankets. These could be provided in recycled or decomposable bags instead.
More aluminium foil being used for food. Or, better yet, a total switch to reusable or at least decomposable food packaging.
According to CNN, the average airline passenger will leave behind 1.3lbs of rubbish - three quarters of which is recyclable, whilst only 20 percent is actually recycled. As passengers, we should be taking more responsibility for the cans, cups, bottles and magazines we use and bring on board, which could include recycling them ourselves at the airport. That way, there’s less uncertainty as to whether or not it will be recycled.
Nonetheless, more effort needs to be made by airlines to recycle their passengers waste, as well as what waste they themselves are creating with what they're giving out. Whether that is switching to more recyclable, reusable and compostable alternatives, there are always better alternatives out there.
What do you think about plastic waste on planes? Leave a comment below!
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