Are Airlines Using Too Much Plastic?

February 14, 2018

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. Not only was there a fantastic film selection on the built-in tv screens, but there were three amazing free meals each too! The only cause for concern was the amount of single use plastics that were being massively over used…



The cutlery for the meals was made of plastic, as well as wrapped in plastic! We saw all of the plastic cups be collected and put into a bin bag with all of the other rubbish, which suggested that it was all going to be thrown away without being sorted out. According to The Guardian, 5.2 million tonnes of waste was generated by airlines in 2016, most of which went to landfill or incinerators, and cost a huge £400 million… Surely, with that statistic in mind, it should be in their interest to reuse and recycle more.


But is it hard for airlines to reuse and recycle because of hygiene reasons or international health regulations? Whilst the cups for water and soft drinks were disposable, the mugs for tea and coffee were being reused throughout the flight, and possibly on future flights. So what’s the difference?


On the plus side, we saw that there were water stations free to use all around Kuala Lumpur’s airport and many people using reusable water bottles. We think that the silly, plastic pots that were given out on the flight should be swapped for larger jugs or containers so free refills can be given on board and the amount of single use plastic that is used can be reduced.


Of course, airlines want to uphold their costumer's satisfaction and meet their customer’s expectations, so offering free refills could help do this. We would also argue that ditching the flimsy, throw away cups and plastic pots for more reusable cups would lead to a considerably higher customer satisfaction rate.


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 newspaper/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. There is the issue of one material being recyclable in one part of the world, but not recyclable in another. So, a better knowledge of this and more consideration over the materials being used is incredibly important. 


From what we saw, Malaysia airlines could do the following to reduce the amount of rubbish going to landfill and lessen their impact on the environment:


Reusable or decomposable cutlery. Just like in restaurants, you can wash and reuse them. We did some research and found that 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, and Malaysia Airlines might do too. Also, there are plenty of plant-based plastic alternatives now available, which would most likely be an easy switch.


Reusable or decomposable cups. This not only reduces the amount of single use plastic, it could reduce the cost of the airlines' waste disposal. Again, a plant-based plastic 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. Even water can be bought in cans, so there’s no need for non-biodegradable plastic to be used. Hopefully, a change is made in what is sold at airports to, 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 and cardboard being used for food. Or, better yet, a total switch to decomposable food packaging.



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