Plastic is a paradoxical product. On the one hand, it is relatively cheap to produce, is lightweight, sturdy, and moisture resistant. Those inherent qualities have led us to produce and consume plastic products with an insatiable appetite since those early days of Bakelite in 1907. But plastic has a dark side. Its very quality of mass production and durability means it degrades slowly. Very slowly. Our habit of mass consumption and single-use apathy, combined with littering which in turn leads to pollution has created a plastic waste pollution problem unseen in human history. But change is afoot. There is a strong movement from an individual level through to the corporate sector to enact change and find a solution to stem the plastic tide. With such a concerted effort to curb the amount of plastic used each day, it was only a matter of time before the airline industry joined the crusade.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) claims that 5.7 million tonnes of plastic waste were produced by airline passengers in 2017, with a predicted doubling of that within fifteen years without action being taken. Hi Fly, a Portuguese company that leases Airbus aircraft to airlines that need to cater for additional capacity during peak periods, recently operated its first plastic-free flight from Lisbon to Brazil. Hi Fly’s president, Paulo Mirpuri, said his company, “Could no longer ignore the impact plastic contamination has on ecosystems, as well as on human health.” The airline aims to adopt a plastic-free policy across all aircraft by the end of the year.
Hi Fly claim that a single flight produces approximately 350kg of waste plastic. Their solution? All single-use plastic items are being replaced with environmentally friendly alternatives. These include spoons, salt and pepper shakers, cups, toothbrushes, soft drink bottles, dishes, individual butter tubs, and packaging for bedding. While Hi Fly should be lauded for their stance on plastic items aboard aircraft, they are still a small player in the aviation game and it will take a greater commitment from fellow carriers to make a cultural change.
Will other airlines follow suit?
The publicity and public support for a smaller carrier such as Hi Fly can often force change on the major players, and that seems to be having a ripple effect almost immediately. Ryanair has pledged to become the “greenest airline” by 2023 by eliminating plastic products across its aircraft and corporate buildings. On-board changes will include biodegradable coffee cups, wooden cutlery, and the elimination of plastic from in-flight products. Another European budget carrier, easyJet, is making the transition to hot drink cups with a compostable lining and replacing plastic drink stirrers and spoons with wooden alternatives. This is on top of their current policy of offering a 50p discount to passengers who use their own cup for hot drinks.
Closer to home, Air New Zealand has already begun removing plastic straws (500 million of which are used in America alone every day!), coffee stirrers, plastic eye masks and toothbrushes from lounges and aircraft with further plans to ban another fourteen ancillary items such as plastic bags, coffee cups, and lids.
A journey begins with a single step, and with many airlines now joining the fight against plastic it would be detrimental to the earnings of any airline that is deemed unwilling to adopt change. With more plastic being produced in this decade than in the previous century, any change can only be a change for the better.