How Do We Tackle Airline Food Waste?

Public Domain. Unsplash / Toni Osmundson

'Fly less' is the obvious answer, but there are some effective interim solutions, too.

Airline passengers generate 3 pounds of waste per person per flight, according to British research. This includes disposable cups and headphones, napkins, food packaging, uneaten food, and more. All of this goes to landfill or gets incinerated, depending on the requirements of the country in which the plane has landed; and none is recycled, as regular flights are not equipped to deal with separate waste streams.

An article in the New York Times paints a dismal picture overall. That three-pound average multiplied by 4 billion passengers annually amounts to a whole lot of trash. And while many critics will doubtless point out the futility of discussing on-board trash in the face of a plane's greenhouse gas emissions, there is some value in examining small practices in order to gain momentum to tackle bigger ones.

The Times describes an effort to make airline food packaging greener. A current exhibit at the Design Museum in London displays a prototype of a meal tray that could be served in the economy cabin. The tray is made of pressed coffee grounds, the dessert cup is an edible waffle cone, the dishes are pressed wheat bran, a banana leaf is used for salads, and a spork is made of coconut palm wood, a byproduct that would otherwise be burned.

These are interesting developments that could be adopted not only by airlines but across the whole takeout food industry; however, I think a key point is being missed. When the composition of airline trash created by 145 flights into Madrid was analyzed by the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change, they found that "33 percent was food waste, 28 percent was cardboard and paper waste, and about 12 percent was plastic." So switching to pressed plant leaves and food-based packaging is not as revolutionary as it would be if more than 12 percent of the waste were single-use plastic.

What could make a real difference is the (re-)introduction of reusables. Whether airlines go back to the way they used to serve food in bygone decades, on ceramic plates with metal cutlery. It's still done in first class, so clearly there is a model that could be replicated throughout an entire airplane.

Another possibility is to ask passengers to bring their own eating implements at time of ticket purchase. A reminder could be sent out a few days ahead of the flight or upon online check-in. Yes, it requires a huge change in habits, but it's not impossible. Consider the number of people now travelling with refillable water bottles compared to a few years ago. There's no reason why that couldn't be extended to include a coffee cup, a spork, and a plate in a sealed bag.

Alternatively, all airlines could stop including meals in ticket prices and make them only available for purchase. This is done on most short-haul flights now, but could be expanded to include all flights. Passengers would think about whether or not they really want to pay for food, thus reducing waste, and would have an incentive to pack their own from home.

I support packaging innovation, but as we've argued many times on TreeHugger, it's the underlying food culture that demands the closest scrutiny, not replicating the same broken system in a more sustainable way. People must adjust to the idea of eating at home and/or carrying their own food in reusable containers, without always relying on over-packaged takeout for nourishment.