The ap­palling truth be­hind what hap­pens to all that cabin rub­bish

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - TRAVEL - By GAVIN HAINES

Ex­it­ing a plane af­ter a long-haul flight is often like walk­ing through a land­fill site.

“The cabin of my 767 looks like a typhoon has blown through it,” says Pa­trick Smith, a US pi­lot and au­thor of Cock­pit Con­fi­den­tial. “There are news­pa­pers, cups, cans, plas­tic wrap­pers of ev­ery con­ceiv­able color and size, candy, gum, cook­ies, ap­ple cores, and even sul­lied di­a­pers, thrown un­der seats or crammed into pock­ets.”

And that’s just the stuff the cabin crew hasn’t man­aged to col­lect. Else­where in the plane — stowed away out of sight from pas­sen­gers — are bin bags bulging with de­tri­tus.

Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion (IATA), air­line pas­sen­gers gen­er­ated 5.2 mil­lion tonnes of waste in 2016, which is roughly equiv­a­lent to 43,000 Boe­ing 787 Dream­lin­ers. That fig­ure, it warns, will dou­ble within 15 years un­der a “busi­ness as usual” ap­proach.

With few ex­cep­tions most of that waste ends up be­ing in­cin­er­ated or thrown into a very deep hole. Barely any­thing is re­cy­cled. And not all of it is waste, in the tra­di­tional sense of the word; amongst the used cut­lery, crum­pled news­pa­pers and con­tam­i­nated food pack­ag­ing are left­over meals, un­used blan­kets and un­used head­phones, which are typ­i­cally treated as trash.

“It’s dis­grace­ful,” said Matt Rance, CEO of MNH Sus­tain­able Cabin Ser­vices, which pro­duces re­us­able head­phones and blan­kets for air­lines such as Emi­rates, Qan­tas and Eti­had.

Ac­cord­ing to Rance, who de­scribes him­self as a “womble”, re­us­able prod­ucts can be used up to five or six times by the air­line and are bet­ter qual­ity than their dis­pos­able coun­ter­parts. They also cost less per unit and can gen­er­ate good PR for the car­rier, he adds. “It’s a no brainer.”

At the end of a flight, MNH will col­lect the items, take them away for ser­vic­ing and send them back to the air­line as new. Head­phones and blan­kets that have reached the end of their life will, he claims, be re­cy­cled.

“There are all sorts of weird and won­der­ful uses for them,” he told Tele­graph Travel. “We use head­set sponges, for ex­am­ple, in eques­trian cen­tres, to line the floor and pro­tect horses’ hooves.”

Old blan­kets, mean­while, are sent to home­less or re­lief char­i­ties.

Rance con­cedes that it can be hard chang­ing the pro­cure­ment habits of air­lines, but praises “pro­gres­sive” car­ri­ers for com­ing on­board.

He also says his com­pany has some­thing of a “lonely ex­is­tence” — he rues the lack of sim­i­lar or­gan­i­sa­tions com­pet­ing in the same space.

That’s not to say oth­ers aren’t try­ing to do their bit. OzHar­vest, for ex­am­ple, re­cently started work­ing with Bris­bane Air­port to help dis­trib­ute un­eaten plane meals to home­less peo­ple. And last year Gatwick Air­port opened an on-site biomass plant, which con­verts waste into en­ergy. The plant also con­tains a re­cy­cling fa­cil­ity.

So why are such ini­tia­tives not more wide­spread?

“Many coun­tries have very strict reg­u­la­tions on food [or food­con­tam­i­nated waste] be­ing brought in,” ex­plained IATA’s Chris Goater. “They take a pre­cau­tion­ary ap­proach and often it has to be dealt with very strictly.” In other words, buried or burnt.

“We’re try­ing to change views on that,” he said, “but it’s a slow process.”

Goater claims air­lines are largely on­board with re­cy­cling, but are stymied by reg­u­la­tions, which dif­fer from coun­try to coun­try.

“You can’t have one set of rules for the out­bound leg of a flight and another for the in­bound leg, it just gets far too dif­fi­cult for the staff to cope with,” he said. “So in the end it just gets thrown away.”

Cabin waste costs the avi­a­tion in­dus­try an es­ti­mated $500 mil­lion an­nu­ally, a fig­ure that ex­cluded the cost of trans­port­ing it be­tween con­ti­nents.

“It adds ex­tra weight [to the plane], which re­sults in ex­tra fuel con­sump­tion,” ex­plained Magdalena Golebiewska, group en­vi­ron­ment man­ager at TUI.

Golebiewska be­lieves bet­ter waste man­age­ment pro­ce­dures on the ground could help ad­dress the grow­ing rub­bish prob­lem and re­duce costs. If more air­ports had fa­cil­i­ties like Gatwick’s, for ex­am­ple, they could save the money and time it takes to send waste to land­fill.

For that to work, claims Rance, you would need the al­ready-over­stretched cabin crew to help sep­a­rate waste on board each air­craft.

“If you could sep­a­rate at source then you’re go­ing to have a lot less con­tam­i­na­tion,” he said. “And that means less waste.”

Mean­while the moun­tain of rub­bish grows ever higher.

Pa­trick Smith,


air­line pas­sen­gers will pro­duce more than 10 mil­lion tonnes of waste if cur­rent trends con­tinue.

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