Sustainability In Flight, Literally

by Luke on September 22, 2010

The concept of sustainability has evolved drastically over the past several years.  At first, only the eco pioneers embraced sustainability initiatives.  They felt it was the right thing to do.  Then, consumers started asking companies to be more environmental.  In response, corporations began implementing surface-level sustainability initiatives without any real roots.  This evolved into companies realizing that robust sustainability programs can actually save energy which means lower costs.  All the while, consumers have continued demanding companies to go green, but now they really mean it.  Companies need to do more than implement just surface-level green tactics.

This evolution has led many companies to launch green product lines.  It has also spurred the launch of entire companies that make nothing but green products.  Now in nearly every industry, consumers can find at least one company that is completely and totally dedicated to sustainability, a company that doesn’t offer conventional products.  Method offers nothing but non-toxic cleaners.  Credo Mobile has built a mobile phone service based on the triple bottom line.  The Green Garage only offers environmental car repair services.  New Leaf Paper only makes high recycled content paper.  Eco-Products only makes environmental packaging.  And the list goes on… except for one industry.

The one major industry that has still not yet demonstrated that they embrace sustainability in the least bit is the airline industry.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when a flight attendant walks down the aisle to gather the trash at the end of the flight and everything goes into one bag.  The cans, the plastic bottles, the newspapers and the garbage all gets sent to a landfill.  I start twitching when I see it happen.

Airplanes are like national forest land.  You have to pack out what you pack in if you want to recycle.

In 2005, 86% of the U.S. population had access to curbside recycling programs.  That means that all of those flight attendants who throw recyclables in the trash probably recycle at home, or at least have access to recycling. However, collectively, they have failed to find a way to recycle in-flight waste even though most airports now recycle in the terminals.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  Isn’t it illegal to throw plastic bottles into the trash in some states like North Carolina and others?  How do airlines get away with it?

Sadly, recycling is the easiest way to be green, but it still doesn’t occur.  Time Magazine had a great article on in-flight recycling with some pretty astounding stats:

  • The average amount of waste generated per passenger per flight is 1.3 lbs
  • 58 Boeing 747′s could be built each year from the aluminum cans discarded by U.S. airlines

And recycling is just the tip of the iceberg.  With as much fuel as the industry burns, wouldn’t you think that they’d work harder to find more environmental and cost-effective alternatives like biofuels?  Yet, it hasn’t happened.  The only group working on biofuels to my knowledge is Alaska Airlines and they already have the most fuel efficient fleet.  Way to go Alaska!

In most industries you have companies trying to green wash consumers to win them over.  Not in the airline industry.  You don’t even find airlines trying to green wash consumers.  Does that mean that they just don’t care at all?  It doesn’t appear they are taking any steps to become more sustainable.  Southwest is the only airline I’ve seen with a clearly stated sustainability program.  Good job LUV.

The entrepreneur in me is wondering if this presents an opportunity.  Consumers have demonstrated that they’ll pay more for products that are sustainable.  Would they pay more for an airline that demonstrates sustainability?  Would you fly a certain airline more if their sustainability values were in line with yours?  Better yet, if there was an airline dedicated to nothing but green – call it the Seventh Generation of the airline industry – would you pay more to fly with them?

I guess until that hypothetical green airline is launched, all we have to work with is this solar plane.  I bet they recycle.

  • Denise Sample

    Luke,

    Airlines are subject to USDA and similar rules that mandate all trash, everything, be incinerated after use in most instances. Any international flight (including Mexico, Canada and even Puerto Rico) must have all its garbage waste incinerated right at the first airport when landing in the U.S. The State of Hawaii and USDA have similar for all flights between the islands and the mainland.
    And now CDC and others weigh in due to the way that disease can be spread via air travel so easily.

    Not all flights are subject to these rules, but a vast portion of the daily flights in this country and beyond are.

    The question comes down to erring on the side of phyto pest or bacteria/viral safety, or higher risk of accidental breakouts of pests in crops, where no know predator exists, transmission of disease, like tuberculosis, or things of that nature.

    We would all love to see all the airlines get more “green” but they face regulations from a variety of regulators that see things differently.

    • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

      Denise, I’m interested to learn more about the incineration of airline trash. From the research I’ve seen, I haven’t found anything about airlines incinerating trash either through mandates or voluntarily. In particular, the Trash Landings report (http://www.nrdc.org/cities/recycling/airline/airline.pdf) produced by the NRDC that studied the airline waste problem doesn’t mention incineration. Maybe my sources need refreshing, but I haven’t found anything in the public domain that indicates airlines incinerate in the U.S. I could see how that would be different in other countries, though, where incineration is more common. The number of MSW incinerators in the U.S. has decreased from 190 to 89 since 1990. I’m still holding my stance that the airlines need to step up and do more to recycle since over 800 million pounds of trash are generated from airline passengers every year. There are solutions that can be implemented to reduce their waste (incineration or no incineration) and I haven’t noticeably seen any airlines be proactive to make a change.

  • Denise Sample

    Luke,

    The incineration facilities are located right on the airport grounds. Under US law, USDA subsections, all that waste has to be incinerated on site, for plant and animal quarantine purposes…. No exceptions. As an example, Check out about a year ago on the TV show “Dirty Jobs”. Mike Rowe had to clean out the ash pit at the Kansas City airport.

    Sincerely
    Denise

    • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke

      I guess I need to check my sources. Thanks

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