World's First Plastic-Free Flight Took Off This Week

CC BY 2.0. Sean MacEntee

The plane carries no single-use plastics – but aren't we ignoring a much bigger environmental issue?

The world's first plastic-free flight took off from Portugal and flew to Brazil on December 26th. The plane carried no single-use plastics aboard, having replaced them with bamboo cutlery, paper packaging, and easily compostable containers. Everything from butter pots and soft drink bottles to sick bags and toothbrushes had been redesigned to be plastic-free; and it was estimated that the change would prevent 350 kg of disposable plastics from being used.

The flight, operated by Hi-Fly, has been called "historic", and is hailed as the way of the future for the airline, which has committed to going entirely plastic-free within a year. This change is driven by Hi-Fly president Paulo Mirpuri, who is also head of the Lisbon-based Mirpuri Foundation, a non-profit organization that develops sustainable solutions to environmental problems. Mirpuri told CTV News, "The test flights will help us trial the many substitute items we have developed and introduced, in a real-world environment."

The plane is scheduled to pick up Brazilian passengers in the northeastern city of Natal and bring them back to Portugal to celebrate New Year's, then deliver then home a week later. Over 700 passengers will be part of this trial.

Mirpuri is optimistic about the effect that eliminating single-use plastics can have, stating in a press release:

"Over 100,000 flights take off each day around the world and, last year, commercial aircraft carried nearly four billion passengers. This number is expected to double again in less than 20 years. So, the potential to make a difference here is clearly enormous."

There is validity to what Mirpuri says. The estimate I once heard is that there are 20,000 planes in the air at any given moment, and if each of those generates 350 kg of disposable plastic waste that could be replaced with plastic-free alternatives, that's a whopping 7 million kg of plastics not being used.

But, like so many environmental initiatives that I believe do come from a place of good intentions, this one fails to acknowledge the much, much bigger problem at hand, which is air travel's devastating effect on the planet. But nobody wants to talk about that. Challenging a person's 'right' to travel is arguably a more contentious conversation even than the vegan vs. meat-eating debate.

On one hand, this plastic-free announcement is precisely the kind of thing I want to hear, and I am hopeful that it can stand as a model to countless other industries for how to wean oneself off single-use plastics on a big scale. On the other hand, however, it strikes me as ludicrous that we're even talking about plastic-free accessories "making an enormous difference" when people are jetting between Portugal and Brazil to party for New Year's. It's a bit like extinguishing a fire in one's living room fireplace when there's a wildfire outside, threatening to engulf the house.

Another (lesser) problem I see with this flight is that the plastics have simply been replaced with non-plastic alternatives; they're still disposables. It would be much better if we could return to the style of 1950s flights, when porcelain and silverware were used on board. Disposables of any kind, regardless of how they're made, still require vast amounts of resources to produce and still create large amounts of waste, even if it's compostable in theory.

So, no, I am not celebrating this so-called historic moment. If anything, it deserves to go down in history as a moment of colossal ignorance, when we, as an entire race, teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, are more preoccupied with stabbing our microwaved beef with bamboo forks than worrying about the fact that the entire plane is going down.