From disposable headphones and plastic cutlery to food scraps and toilet waste, the average airline passenger leaves behind over three pounds of garbage, according to one estimate. To get travelers and airlines thinking — and talking — about that rather large pile of trash, a British design firm has refashioned the economy meal tray, replacing plastic with renewable materials such as coffee grounds, banana leaves and coconut wood.
Jo Rowan is the associate strategy director of the firm, PriestmanGoode, which has spent more than two decades applying design thinking to the air travel experience, including airport lounges and cabin seating.
Now, she said, the firm is turning its attention to the less “glamorous” side of things.
“Onboard waste is a big issue,” she said. “Knowing that you have four billion passengers per year, it all adds up very quickly.”
By far the biggest environmental issue with air travel — and the reason the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg opted to sail to New York from Europe in August, rather than fly — is the associated carbon emissions, which are growing at a faster rate than predicted in previous, already dire projections.
But as air travel becomes increasingly accessible, and as more people take to the skies, airlines have been making public pledges to curb their environmental footprints, including the plastic forks and leftovers their passengers leave behind.
How much trash are we talking about?
Because there is no central authority tracking statistics about the amount of waste produced on flights, accurate and recent figures are hard to come by. But the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing about 300 airlines, conducted a small study at Heathrow Airport in London and estimated that airlines generated about 6.7 million tons of cabin waste last year.
As low-cost airlines proliferate, and as the tourism industry continues to court middle-class customers, that number could double in the next decade.
“It’s a relatively limited sample at this stage,” Chris Goater, a spokesman for the trade association, said.
Pere Fullana i Palmer, director of the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change, a research group based in Barcelona, has taken an even deeper dive into the issue of airline trash.
“You cannot improve a system if you don’t know it,” he said.
Dr. Fullana i Palmer’s research group teamed up with Iberia Airlines, Gate Gourmet, Ferrovial and Ecoembes to analyze approximately 8,400 pounds of garbage on 145 flights into Madrid. The group found that 33 percent was food waste, 28 percent was cardboard and paper waste, and about 12 percent was plastic.
How can this be fixed?
As consumers become increasingly conscious of the outsize environmental impact of air travel, airlines are under growing pressure to take action.
Alaska Airlines, Ryanair and British Airways have made public declarations to reduce waste, and Air France said it would eliminate 210 million single-use plastic items like cups and stirring sticks by the end of this year.
On one Qantas flight in May, which the company called “the first-ever commercial flight to produce no landfill waste,” the airline removed individually packaged servings of milk and Vegemite, and served meals in containers made from sugar cane, with utensils made of crop starch.
But replicating such innovations on a meaningful scale will be tricky. Regular flights are not equipped with the necessary facilities or systems for attendants to manage recycled goods, according to Megan Epler Wood, the author of “Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet” and the director of Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative. (On a recent trip, Ms. Wood said, she saw a flight attendant separating recyclables with her bare hands.)
The solution, she said, would require collaboration among airlines, local authorities and airports, which are ultimately responsible for handling and hauling trash.
I.A.T.A., the airline trade association, said the rules governing international catering waste — which involve a complex set of international and country-specific regulations meant to prevent the spread of disease — should be reconsidered to increase recycling rates.
While all cabin waste is subject to the regulations of the country in which it lands, some European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, have imposed additional measures to protect agriculture. This means that even untouched food and drink, which, according to I.A.T.A. estimates, makes up about 20 percent of total airline waste, ends up in landfills or is incinerated.
The regulations governing single-use plastic, which will be banned in the European Union by 2021, also present challenges, according to the trade association.
“We’ve developed a lot of guidance to airlines to deal with the issue of cabin waste,” Michael Gill, I.A.T.A.’s director of aviation environment, said. “But airlines cannot solve the issue on their own.”
“Its vital regulators understand the full impacts,” he continued, “including increased energy and water use, as well as CO₂ emissions that result from heavier materials carried on board.”
Dr. Fullana i Palmer agreed that legislation permitting more materials to be recycled or turned into biogas was needed, but said that change was possible.
“I am optimistic because there is a big push for saving our planet,” he said. “The tsunami is so strong that all sectors will have to adapt.”
The airline meal, reimagined
In designing the onboard items, PriestmanGoode was conscious of heft because the more weight on an aircraft, the higher the fuel emissions. The tray is made of coffee grounds and husks (also a coffee byproduct). The dishes are made of pressed wheat bran, and a single spork made of coconut palm wood, a waste product that farmers would otherwise burn, replaces plastic cutlery.
“If you picked it up, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t plastic,” Ms. Rowan said. “Part of what we were trying to do was actually look at how we could make this a desirable product, as well as being sustainable.”
The team also played with lids of dishes, which are typically made of transparent plastic, to signify what’s inside: a pressed banana leaf for salads and side dishes, an edible waffle cone for dessert.
The goal, Ms. Rowan said, is “getting people to think about the way that they travel and also getting airlines and the service providers to think about what they offer.”
Ms. Rowan said airlines and suppliers had shown interest in the products, which, for now, are available only at the museum through February.
“We’re moving this on to the next level of development,” she said, to “get some of these things to fly.”