NEW YORK: From disposable headphones and plastic cutlery to food scraps and toilet waste, the average airline passenger leaves behind over three pounds of garbage, according to one estimate. To get travelers and airlines thinking — and talking — about that rather large pile of trash, a British design firm has refashioned the economy meal tray, replacing plastic with renewable materials such as coffee grounds, banana leaves and coconut wood.
Jo Rowan, the associate strategy director of PriestmanGoode, said the firm is turning its attention to the less “glamorous” side of things. “Onboard waste is a big issue,” she said. “Knowing that you have four billion passengers per year, it all adds up very quickly.”
By far the biggest environmental issue with air travel is the associated carbon emissions, which are growing at a faster rate than predicted in previous, already dire projections.
But as air travel becomes increasingly accessible, airlines have been making public their pledges to curb their environmental footprints, including the plastic forks and leftovers their passengers leave behind. The International Air Transport Association, a group representing about 300 airlines, conducted a study at Heathrow Airport in London and estimated that airlines generated about 6.7 million tonnes of cabin waste last year. As low-cost airlines proliferate, and as the tourism industry continues to court middle-class customers, that number could double in the next decade.
Pere Fullana i Palmer, director of the Unesco Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change, a research group, has taken an even deeper dive into the issue of airline trash.
Fullana i Palmer’s research group teamed up with Iberia Airlines, Gate Gourmet, Ferrovial and Ecoembes to analyse 8,400 pounds of garbage on 145 flights into Madrid. The group found that 33% was food waste, 28% cardboard and paper waste, and about 12% was plastic. Fullana i Palmer agreed that legislation permitting more materials to be recycled or turned into biogas was needed, but said that change was possible.
In designing the onboard items, PriestmanGoode was conscious of heft because the more weight on an aircraft, the higher the fuel emissions. The tray is made of coffee grounds and husks (also a coffee byproduct). The dishes are made of pressed wheat bran, and a single spork made of coconut palm wood, a waste product that farmers would otherwise burn, replaces plastic cutlery.
“You wouldn’t know it wasn’t plastic,” Rowan said. The team played with lids of dishes, typically made of transparent plastic, to signify what’s inside: a pressed banana leaf for salads and side dishes, an edible waffle cone for dessert.