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Airlines have a love-hate relationship with plastics, especially when it comes to food and beverage. Plastics pose a serious environmental threat, but at the same time they're lightweight and thereby help reduce carbon emissions. Can carriers tackle both of these problems at once?

Travel Beyond Plastics is a groundbreaking new Skift series about the travel industry’s addiction to plastics and what happens when companies and travelers try to kick this unsustainable habit.

Plastics play a huge role on airplanes, especially in catering, but it wasn’t always this way. Going back to the so-called golden age of air travel in the 1950s and 60s, the experience of flying was very different: fine china, cocktail glasses, and real cutlery.

Naturally, those flights were expensive for the time, and few people could afford to fly. Today, democratization has arrived and anyone with even 60 dollars can fly somewhere on a low-cost carrier. With exceptions for first and business class, we’ve swapped the porcelain plates for plastic cups, plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, and plastic-wrapped cookies.

These items are awfully convenient. Plastic is lightweight, so it’s quick and easy for cabin crew to dispose. There’s also no concern about sanitation in this tight-knit space — everything is single-use or individually wrapped. Plus, the lightweight factor means an increase in fuel efficiency, which helps lower carbon emissions and keep fares down.

However, much like other sectors of travel, airlines are increasingly aware that their use of plastics is damaging the environment as bottles, straws, and wrappers pile up in oceans and on beaches.

Airline catering is rife with plastics and is a sensible place to start cutting back. But is replacing plastic with another material, or eliminating it, such an easy win? Will flyers really embrace these changes if it costs them money or convenience?

Food’s Plastic Problem Comes With an Emissions Problem

Airlines are increasingly concerned about plastic waste from their catering operations, but plastic has a key benefit: It’s lightweight and thereby helps minimize the plane’s emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and poses a major environmental threat.

CO2 emissions vary from aircraft to aircraft, but on average, a plane produces 53.3 pounds per mile, according to Blue Sky Model. By comparison, driving one mile in an average passenger vehicle emits about 404 grams per mile, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The heavier the plane and its contents, the more CO2 it burns, and with an airplane, that burning happens at a very high altitude, which is arguably more damaging than emissions at sea level.

Airlines are naturally hesitant to replace lightweight plastic with something heavier like glass or china that will require the plane to use more fuel, which comes at both a financial and environmental cost. Every ounce of weight can theoretically make a difference, and with items like glassware, they also need to be cleaned and sterilized.

One way to address the weight problem is to reduce the amount of food and drink all around. On Scandinavian Airlines, all fresh food as well as breakfast on short-haul flights is available by preorder only, making the amount of food — and associated plastic packaging — lower and more precise.

Delta drink glass with bamboo stirrer, beyond the straw campaign

Bamboo stirrers are part of Delta’s Beyond the Straw plastic-reduction campaign. Photo by Delta Air Lines.

Delta Air Lines cited preordered meals as one of its more successful initiatives that reduce waste, although it started as more of a customer benefit than a focus on plastics, according to Tim Mapes, chief marketing officer.

Delta doesn’t have an exact figure for how much plastic it uses in its catering, but said its long-term goal is to eliminate single-use plastics, including items like coffee stirrers, and further promote a circular plastic economy, in which more plastics get successfully recycled. Mapes cited edible seaweed pouches that replaced plastic bottles in the London marathon as “the imagination and creativity that’s got to be brought to these issues.” Outside food and beverage, Mapes also said that as of July 1, Delta will eliminate all plastic surrounding its amenity kits, as well as the plastic wrapping for its blankets and linens.

“What can we take away that’s not being used?” asked Max Knagge, general manager Americas for Scandinavian Airlines, about catering materials. “Do we need salt and pepper on breakfast trays? Maybe not, so we’re taking that away,” he said. The carrier is also in the process of changing straws and stirrers from plastic to compostable materials, and reducing the size of its water bottles to reduce waste and better reflect how much water passengers are actually drinking.

These food-related measures help reduce carbon emissions, but there are other ways to address that problem.

Much like preordering food, flyers have some limited control over their carbon footprint. Passengers can opt to offset their CO2: 40 percent of Scandinavian’s 30 million passengers are CO2 offsets, the cost of which the airline picks up for loyalty members. Delta passengers can similarly pay to offset their impact.

Scandinavian said it’s phasing in new aircraft with 18–20 percent lower emissions: Airbus 320neos and Airbus 350s. Electronic aircraft is the endgame, the most sustainable option, according to Knagge, but it’s a long road to get there. Biofuel is a good interim step, but there’s a limited supply, so Scandinavian is partnering with energy company Preem to produce its own — a new plant will open in 2023.

Mapes similarly stressed that the modernization of Delta’s fleet makes a major difference in reducing fuel consumption and reducing carbon footprint. “It’s all about net,” said Mapes of replacing plastic with something heavier that only appears to be more sustainable — if it reduces plastic waste but worsens carbon emissions, it’s not a good move.

“I would rather increase carbon emissions [than increase plastic waste] because we can do things to offset that,” said Jason DiVenere. The 35-year-old spent much of his career as an aerospace engineer at Boeing and SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic. In 2018 he flew 487,000 PQM (premier qualifying miles) on United and he’s been a by-invitation-only Global Services member with United for four years.

Carbon emissions can indeed be offset as DiVenere noted, though so can a switch away from unsustainable materials. Likewise, it’s arguably just as daunting an idea to remove microplastics from the ocean as to repair the ozone layer, and the real solution lies in preventing the pollution at its source.

DiVenere is also a private pilot and said that small amounts of increased weight from heavier, non-plastic catering materials will not pose a significant problem, especially because airlines already can’t precisely account for contingencies like heavier luggage.

Airplane food with lots of plastic

Airplane food comes with lots of plastic on Feb. 6, 2019, photo by Miguel Discart.

How Much Money and Convenience Will Flyers Sacrifice?

Replacing plastic with a heavier material often comes at a financial cost, which may get passed on to the consumer. Whether flyers will pay more to reduce plastic waste depends greatly on the demographic, and societal pressure, according to Knagge.

“In Scandinavia and especially Sweden, it’s in such transition. It’s really changing the demand on travel, and everything from grocery shopping to the car industry,” said Knagge. “If you offer something that is better for the environment, and it has a negative impact on your personal convenience, you don’t complain about it. It’s politically incorrect and that pressure from society is so huge.”

In Scandinavia especially there’s an incipient anti-flying movement among those who are vocal about climate change. The community is fairly small at this point, but shows real signs of growing as people stop bragging about airline status and start bragging about taking the train instead. Tour operator Thomas Cook even cited that the anti-flying movement is negatively impacting its Northern European business.

And yet, consumers have their limits when it comes to shunning aviation. “Looking at a more global picture, we’ve seen quite a low tolerance for paying extra for a more sustainable option,” he said. Scandinavian does encourage flyers to pack light to reduce weight on board, save fuel, and reduce costs — but packing habits die hard.

“There’s no doubt there’s a line that, when crossed, it might become problematic,” said Mapes of travelers’ ability to withstand changes. “When you have food, you want to know that there’s hygiene, that there are proper controls,” he said, specifying that taking care with food crossing international borders is even more crucial.

The idea is to lead by example and not be judgmental when introducing sustainable changes to flyers, according to Mapes. “More people embrace it than don’t,” he said.

While testing bamboo and wooden cutlery options, Etihad Airways found that “they didn’t deliver a pleasant dining experience,” said Linda Celestino, vice president of guest experience and delivery, by email. “This resulted in us selecting disposable stainless steel to ensure we uphold our service standards. Of course, we have considered that metal adds extra weight, which in turn leads to extra fuel burn.” Celestino added that the carrier leaned toward a lightweight stainless steel option and that carbon emissions comprised a “bigger issue” than plastic waste.

“Flyers are not always aware of the complexity of airline catering,” said Anne De Hauw, founder of Monaco-based design firm In Air Travel Experience. On the other hand, flyers are increasingly aware of sustainability issues, even though things like on-time performance and cabin comfort still top their priority lists. “Changes have to be genuine, authentic, and true, because flyers will not accept greenwashing anymore,” she said.

And now, with increasing government legislation regulating single-use plastics, like that in the European Union, the pressure is on. “With the new EU policy, there is a more urgent need for airlines to look into it. It’s no longer a plus — it’s a must.”

But who should bear the cost of switching from cheap plastic to something that might be more expensive? “We as an industry have a huge responsibility to find a way to offer solutions that actually are more sustainable without necessarily requiring customers to pay for it,” said Knagge.

Then again, there is a subset of flyers who are willing to assume the burden. “Someone has to pay the cost to do the right thing for the environment, and I don’t mind being that person as long as it’s reasonable and thought out,” said DiVenere.

An avid flyer like DiVenere may be more aware of plastic waste, and more motivated to address it, than your average traveler. He takes the initiative to ask attendants to refill his cup instead of bringing him a new one each time, and he created a video encouraging flyers to recycle the plastic wrapping that accompanies amenities like blankets.

“A flight to Australia is 15 hours — how many cups do you think an economy passenger goes through?” asked DiVenere.

 Control the Supply Chain

If the plastic used to transport food is an issue, one comprehensive solution is to become your own food supplier and thereby control more of the process yourself.

Singapore Airlines launched a farm-to-plane partnership with AeroFarms, resulting in an indoor, vertical garden that will produce salad greens for in-flight meals starting in September. The main purpose of this garden is to supply passengers with the freshest possible food, according to a representative, but there are potential waste-reduction benefits down the line associated with sourcing food close by, instead of flying it in from another continent.

The carrier is also replacing plastic stirrers with bamboo, and plastic straws with paper, starting in September, as well as making sure items like menu cards are made with certified sustainable paper.

Reducing plastics behind the catering scenes, where flyers can’t see, may not be the type of endeavor that goes viral like Skip the Straw, but is an important part of the plastic-reduction process. Ryanair, for example, is trying to source alternative packaging through its suppliers, to be rolled out in-flight and in the company’s offices by 2023, according to an emailed statement.

Ryanair wants to eliminate nonrecyclable plastics across its operations by that date as well, but declined to specify what falls into this nonrecyclable category. It’s worth noting that what constitutes “recyclable” varies greatly by location and available facilities — an estimated 91 percent of plastic is not recycled at all.

Etihad similarly has major room for error in its plastic-reduction efforts. The carrier has pledged to reduce its single-use plastic usage companywide by 80 percent by the end of 2022, including through its supply chain, but declined to say whether they’ve been able to measure their plastic usage in the first place, from which that 80 percent would be calculated.

Aviation suppliers are often motivated by their own sales at a cost to environmental sustainability, according to De Hauw. Using cheap, light, disposable packaging is a financial win for suppliers, but airlines need to explore their options, which vary from carrier to carrier. For example, there’s little reason to introduce a compostable material if local regulations require the airline to incinerate waste upon arrival.

“A circular [plastics] economy requires a collaboration and an open ecosystem of airports, caterers, and airlines to really truly make it work, and I think we’re far away from that right now,” she said.

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Tags: climate change, delta, etihad, plastics, ryanair, sas, singapore air, travel beyond plastics

Photo credit: Scandinavian Airlines serves meals in compostable cardboard material. Scandinavian Airlines

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