Is Zero Waste air travel possible?

I get a lot of queries about zero waste travel. People want to know if it’s possible to travel by air, without generating any landfill waste.

I’ve heard horror stories about endless single-use items and some very positive stories about airlines who are prepared to – if you’ll excuse the pun – go that extra mile.

There are obvious things you can do, which require some planning.

Just like the bin audit you took last week (you did, didn’t you?) you need to know what you’re dealing with before you get anywhere near the airport.

It’s a good idea to visualise the flight from start to finish, look at all the activities you might be doing whilst in the air, and imagine where any waste could be generated.

For example, will you be getting a coffee at the airport? Are you eating and drinking on the plane? What about entertainment and comfort for your journey? Will you need headphones, blankets, a sleep mask?

I admit, I’m probably way behind the times here. The last time I flew was 25 years ago. But even then I remember disposable plastic food trays, cutlery and cups. I remember single-serve drinks and I’m sure any uneaten food was simply thrown away.

Look for the quick wins. It might be straightfoward to take a reusable bottle with you – you may need to take it empty and refill it once you’ve been through security. You can get a digital ticket rather than a paper one. Take a handkerchief rather than use paper napkins. You could take your own wrap for the journey to save using an airline blanket. You could take your own book from the library to read, rather than read one of their magazines. At least this way, the blanket and magazine (which may well be wrapped in plastic) will be left for someone else to use. You’re doing your bit, right?

What fascinates me, is to look ‘behind the scenes’. I’m always intrigued to hear about the fantastic things that go on without you and I even knowing about it. It’s easy to judge what’s wrong, and to criticise the greenwashing, but it’s surprising how many businesses are out there genuinely making a difference.

Have you ever considered that there are actually businesses dedicated to helping airlines reduce landfill? One of those companies is a Zero Waste Week supporter for this year – MNH Sustainable Cabin Services.

When Emma contacted me I admit my first thoughts were ‘Uh Oh, Greenwashing’ but then I found myself more and more inspired by some of the things she told me about.

In a nutshell MNH work with airline clients providing Headset and Laundry Servicing Solutions.

After 6 to 10 rotations an over-ear, banded Headset can no longer be refurbished and put back into the supply chain in pristine condition – but the Headset’s journey doesn’t end here.

At a Headset’s end of life MNH reuse what they can and look for the best secondary use for the remaining cabin waste resulting in zero landfill.

They use stringent raw material segregation and recycling processes, as well as creatively sourcing alternative uses for bulk materials that do not fit traditional recycling waste streams.

As well as Headsets, MNH recycle amenity kits, plastics, old magazines, menus and blankets to name a few things.

For example, the sponges from Headsets are used to surface the floor of equestrian centres and plastics are used to make garden picnic benches and gardens sheds while magazines are turned into loft insulation!

Recycling waste from aircrafts can take products to unusual places as you’ll see in Virgin Atlantic’s recently published Sustainability Report 2017.

Like most of us waste warriors, MNH hate unnecessary packaging – and they’re on a mission to re-engineer polythene packaging.

In many instances they can remove huge amounts of polythene, reducing onboard weight whilst enhancing product presentation without increasing cost.

They’ve worked with both Qantas and Virgin Atlantic to reduce inflight packaging waste and develop a far more sustainable solution than the plastic bag used previously to package their Headsets.

They redesigned their charity collection envelope to fit neatly around the Headsets to protect and showcase the onboard Headsets whilst doubling up as a charity envelope for donations. This simple but effective, multi-purpose wrap is manufactured on Forest Stewardship Council certified paper and will help to avoid tonnes of plastic being used each year saving onboard weight. Less weight means less fuel will be used for each flight, so this change will also help to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m pretty sure that 25 years ago when I took my last flight, everything ended up in the bin. So it’s good to know that the times they are a changin’ and businesses are able to provide services that are profitable AND help the environment.

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Rachelle Strauss

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