Trash-Less Travel

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Typical inflight meal. Photography courtesy of wiki commons.

By Neva Knott

The first time I ever considered that packaging and single-use disposable goods were a problem was on a Spring Break road trip to the Utah desert during college, circa 1988. I was traveling with friends. We stopped at a fast food place. As we un-bagged our food, one of my companions remarked, while looking at the plastic utensils, “So much packaging.”

What? Naively, I replied with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but if people throw it away instead of on the ground…”. Until that moment, I’d never considered that trash was an issue, unless it was left as litter on the landscape. I’d also never considered the problem with disposables.

My friend’s comment that March day 26 years ago left an indelible mark, and changed my behavior. I began taking my own coffee cup and water bottle to campus with me, started washing and reusing plastic bags and brown paper lunch sacks, and avoiding straws and plastic forks, knives, and spoons. A simple change of habit, and a simple shift in thinking. How many one-use food service items have I saved from the landfill in that span of time?

As I continue to travel, I continue to have an awareness of the trash generated by travel. Airports are full of single-use, grab-and-go products. Each on-board snack, beverage, or meal comes in its own container. Most of the packaging is non-recyclable and most airlines don’t recycle anyway. As I observed while sitting at my gate in Heathrow on my recent trip to Ireland, most people walk by and toss, not even looking to put the plastics in the plastics bin, the paper in the paper bin–signaling that established airport recycling programs are ineffective.

In her article, “Leaving Trash Behind,” Christine Negroni of The New York Times cites National Resource Defense Council figures, “An estimated 7.5 million pounds of trash is generated every day. While the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that 75 percent of that trash is recyclable, it has found that only 20 percent reaches a recycling center.” Negroni also acknowledges that research and action on this issue are lacking, “The council’s figures are from 2006, but are the most recent. The lack of current data was one concern of the Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International.”

NRDC’s 2006 report, Trash Landings, explains, “The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 48 Boeing 747 planes.” And “9,000 tons of plastic,” along with “enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.” On a personal level, passengers generate 1.28 pounds of waste per person, per departure. On my recent trip to Ireland, I visited four airports to get from Washington State to Cork; if I consumed at the average rate, I would have left behind 5.12 pounds of trash.

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Typical inflight single-use snack items. Photograph courtesy of wiki commons.

But I don’t consume at the average rate. I figure I have a choice as a consumer to buy or not to buy products in a terminal. So, to avoid taking part in the rampant disposability that is modern air travel, I plan ahead:

  • As much as possible, I pack fruit, nuts, and hard vegetables so that I don’t have to eat plane food or stave off hunger with expensive terminal fare. Smoked salmon and tinned meat, like Trader Joe’s smoked trout, also travel well, and don’t have to be kept cold.
  • I always travel with a water bottle. I fill it at a fountain as soon as I’m through the security line, and have found most flight attendants are pleasantly willing to pour water into it for me during the flight. Before I left for Ireland, I upgraded my re-usable bottle. I bought a Klean Kanteen insulated bottle, so now I can use it for water and tea (again, flight attendants obliged).
  • And, I keep a fork and a spoon in my handbag. This way, I can say “no thanks” to plastic utensils when I do have to purchase a meal while waiting for my connecting flight.

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Photograph courtesy of Klean Kanteen website.

On the longest stretch of my recent trip to Ireland, ten hours from San Francisco to Heathrow, I counted–I was offered eight beverage cups (and took none). Multiplied by the 500 or so passengers on an international flight? That’s over 4,000 cups. And that’s just cups–the Federal Aviation Administration, in Recycling, Reuse and Waste Reduction at Airports, published in 2013, states that in flight kitchens, “several types of waste” are generated in preparing on board meals. And, as any flyer knows, those meals come heavily packaged, thus incur more waste when consumed. Times 500 or so passengers per plane.

Green America, in the report, What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry, February 2010, suggests that “an additional 500 more tons of waste could be recycled each year.”

The social norms of air travel don’t seem to include a focus on sustainability. Thankfully, organizations such as the NRDC and the FAA are working to shift perspectives and habits. NRDC’s report explains that 75 percent of airport waste is recyclable or compostable. The council also calculated that, if airports recycled at the national average of 31 percent, “enough energy would be saved to power 20, 000 households,” and carbon emissions would be reduced by an amount equaling 80,000 cars. Furthermore, “four airports with recycling programs studied by NRDC are achieving savings of more than $100, 000 annually.”

In researching for this article, I did find some interesting programs in place:

  • Oakland International Airport’s website explains that OAK is one of the first airports to recycle pillows–which are normally thrown away at the end of the flight. Oakland’s pillows are recycled into insulation or are used for making furniture.
  • NPR’s Julie Rose reports (December 2012), North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport uses worms to “eat through organic waste.” The worms have helped the airport reduce its waste sent to the landfill by 70 percent. Interestingly, the program even launders clothing left behind when a traveler’s suitcase is overweight, and then donates the clothing.
  • An article in Onboard Hospitality shares the anecdote from the 1990’s of American Airlines flight attendants spearheading an onboard recycling program, selling the recyclables, and then using the $200, 000 they earned to buy a plot of land for The Nature Conservancy.
  • Green America’s report suggests travelers take recyclables off the plane themselves, and recycle them at their destination. The article also includes a recycling report card for the major airlines–and nobody earned an A+.

The push to address the issue of the trash of travel is encouraging news. But, recycling is still a form of waste management. Lowering the amount of waste is crucial, and doable. As consumers, we do have choices. The power of our choices is that we can change our habits, which in turn will change the amount of trash we pile up when we fly.

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