One thing volunteers and members of Pick Up America do not have to worry about as they trek along our nation's highways is trash falling from the sky, although I've always wondered what happens to the things flushed down an airplane's toilet... While the state of airline recycling is not nearly where it should be, the 800 million pounds of waste generated each year by the airline industry is at least being contained until the end of each flight and not ending up as litter along the road. What's not gravy boats is that 75% of this waste could be recycled, and only 20% is currently being reclaimed. A significant portion of the remaining 25% could be composted as well.
ResponsibleShopper.org, Green America's consumer watchdog group, released a report last month entitled "What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry," which outlines these findings, and evaluates airlines on the current and future status of their recycling initiatives. The report found that airlines could recycle nearly 500 million more pounds of waste each year if they simply instituted standard recycling practices on the ground. These would include employee and passenger education, efficient hauler-airport partnerships, and collecting recyclables that fit within current single-stream guidelines. Implementing such measures seems like a simple task; common airplane items like aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles, paper and magazines are all fairly easy materials to collect. However, coordinating a hauler to pick up recyclables at every airport and training employees on proper collection methods would probably take a few years to get down smoothly.
The report used a grading system to evaluate airlines on the state of their recycling, with Delta receiving the highest grade of B- and United flunking completely with an F. As it is, "no airline recycles all the major recyclables: aluminum cans, glass, plastic, and paper. No airline has a comprehensive program for minimizing or composting food waste or waste from snack packages, provides good public information about their recycling program, or reports out on progress in relation to any stated goals. In addition, all airlines provide over-packaged snacks and meals and none of the airlines are working with manufacturers to reduce this waste."
This may be changing as you read this since this report will hopefully stir some within the industry to boost their material recovery performance. Consumer pressure always helps, and it wouldn't hurt to ask the flight attendant the next time you fly, "Is this Dr. Pepper/Pinot Grigio/water bottle going to be recycled?" Then, depending on the response, engage with them about the need for recycling and that you've been hearing nasty rumors about the sorry state of airline recycling. You can also fill out a report to Green America to make the airlines accountable for what they say they are doing: http://www.greenamericatoday.org/takeaction/airline/airline_recycling.cfm
The good news is that airlines can have a huge impact on decreasing waste that goes to landfills, about 500 million pounds of impact annually, and they are starting to get saavy with the cause. Midwest Express Airlines claims to have the first on-flight bins dedicated to recycling, and some airlines are following suit. Some airlines do seperate recyclables from trash in-flight but if an airport doesn't have a recycling apparatus, then these materials all end up in the same place. Airport Recycling Specialists, which set up the first independent MRF at the Fort Lauderdale airport and claims the highest recycling rate for an international airport, is helping other airports set up recycling solutions. Seattle, Portland, Denver and Boston airport authorities are all engaged in considering different waste management solutions. While there is no standard for airports to follow, almost all airports are finding themselves subject to new municipal solid waste guidelines and legislation, and if that isn't enough to change the modus operandi, almost all airports are revamping their waste management strategies to include more recycling because of ever-increasing waste disposal costs due to decreasing landfill space. The possibility of energy generated from airline and terminal waste is also an option for airports.
Major airports have sizable operations and autonomy comparable to a small city, so it is vital that resource conservation be a staple of day-to-day operations. According to research published by the Natural Resource Defense Council, annually, airlines throw away 9,000 tons of plastic, enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747 jets, and enough newspaper and magazines to cover a football field 230 meters deep. The energy savings from recycling this waste would represent a contribution by the airlines to reducing their environmental impact in the face of the considerable climate impact of jet fuel, including 600 million tons of carbon dioxide per year pumped into the atmosphere by commercial jets alone. In order for clear skies to emerge, we must start with the facts on the ground.