Recycling cabin waste remains a major challenge for airlines

The airline industry has always faced criticism for inadequate recycling of cabin waste, which threatens the sector’s environmental reputation. With huge growth in passenger numbers expected in the next decade, the volume of cabin waste could more than double in the next 10 years!
This certainly calls for urgent action for proper recycling of cabin waste in the global airline industry.
However, a growing challenge for airlines is the sustainable management of the millions of tonnes of waste generated in the cabin. Cabin waste costs airlines money, consumes valuable resources and undermines the sector’s credibility in operating sustainably.
Cabin waste consists of two main streams: cleaning waste and catering (kitchen) waste.
Cleaning waste is leftover items given to passengers on the plane such as newspapers, paper towels, plastic bottles, food that has fallen on the floor, toiletry bags and plastic wrappings from blankets, pillows and helmets. Cleaning waste also includes the contents of toilet bins and medical waste such as used syringes.
Catering waste comes from in-flight meals, snacks and beverages served to passengers and can consist of leftover food, beverages and packaging that is returned to carts, static bins or compactors. This waste can contain large volumes of liquid from uneaten beverages and ice.
Increasingly, airlines are taking steps to address the issue and good practices are emerging in the industry.
Industry research by the global body for airlines – IATA indicates that 20-25% of cabin waste is untouched food and beverages and although the in-flight catering market has shrunk during the pandemic. That still means the industry incinerates or landfills $2-3 billion worth of resources.
According to IATA, the inflight catering services market is expected to reach a market size of $18 billion by 2021.
A unique challenge for airlines operating on international routes is the complex waste regulatory environment they must work with. International catering waste is often subject to regulatory inspections and special handling and disposal requirements, including incineration and steam sterilization, making reuse and recycling difficult (if not impossible).
Although airline meals are prepared under strict global hygiene controls, including ingredient sourcing, countries such as Australia, Canada, members of the European Union, New Zealand and the United States has imposed restrictions on catering waste from international flights due to animal health concerns.
Although international arrivals in these countries represent only a fraction of total global arrivals, tight turnaround times, lack of space in catering facilities and providers taking a precautionary approach of services means that catering waste from unregulated domestic or international flights is often unsegregated and all cabin waste is considered potentially biohazardous.
All cabin waste is subject to national waste management controls that limit pollution, but many countries have gone further in their regulations by introducing restrictions on international flight catering waste to protect their agricultural sector (at least regard to animal health).
Airline meals are prepared under strict standards of hygiene and quality control, originally designed for NASA astronauts, but regulations often lead to all cabin waste being incinerated with a limited ability to reuse and recycle.
Another major challenge for airlines is the improper disposal of single-use plastic (SUP) and its impact on the marine environment.
Although SUP is widely used in aviation due to its strength, light weight and hygienic properties, voluntary action by airlines has demonstrated that the industry is keen to replace these products with more sustainable alternatives.
However, international airlines are facing challenges with different SUP regulations being implemented at airport, regional and national levels, an IATA session in Doha said last month.
Asymmetric SUP regulations will result in the introduction of different alternative products on separate legs of a journey, confusing passengers and crew, increasing compliance costs and generating more waste.
These emerging regulations do not recognize that alternatives to SUP must meet strict aviation safety and health constraints and that replacement must be based on a lifecycle approach that takes into account emissions from flight operations. .
IATA has also identified asymmetric national SUP bans that are problematic for international airlines and is raising awareness among relevant regulators of these concerns.
According to the association, many airlines have taken a proactive approach to the SUP challenge by removing drink straws and stirrers and introducing bio-based cutlery, crockery and packaging solutions.
However, in some countries these initiatives have been blocked or canceled due to the pandemic and the introduction of asymmetric regulations.
Industry experts say airlines and their catering providers have an opportunity to reduce cabin waste by improving planning and logistics.
According to them, the regulations of some countries on the treatment of cabin waste reduce the sector’s ability to contribute to the construction of a circular economy and contribute to the goal of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to halve the global food waste by 2030.
A major impediment to airlines’ ability to reuse and recycle more cabin waste is the International Catering Waste (ICW) legislation that many governments have passed. These regulations aim to reduce the risk of transmission of animal and plant diseases by requiring ICW to receive special treatment.
For this reason, airlines and their service providers must work together with regulators to ensure that aviation makes a positive contribution to the SDG target.

About Erick Miles

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