In-Flight Recycling's Slow Takeoff

Coke, Diet Coke, landfill? Too many airlines keep trashing bottles and cans

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Illustration by Tamara Shopsin for TIME

I was on a Qantas flight over eastern Australia the other week when a flight attendant handed me what looked like a fancy barf bag. It was in fact not a fancy barf bag but a fancy trash bag, in which I was instructed to place everything that was not an aluminum can or plastic cup or bottle. The idea is for flight attendants to collect and sort recyclable items and for you, the passenger, to hand over a bag of nonrecyclables to be thrown out.

I hate to be a spoilsport here. Obviously, the scheme is well intended. Qantas launched its onboard recycling program in December on selected domestic flights in an effort to reduce its landfill contributions 25% by 2011.

But why the individual paper bags, Qantas? The airline says the bags are partly biodegradable and that it is working to develop a fully biodegradable version. Still, I have to wonder what the logic is in creating more trash to sort your trash. Makes sense as a labor initiative--if I were a flight attendant, I would prefer to collect neat little bags of trash from my sloppy charges--and maybe as a time-saving initiative. But as a recycling initiative? I dunno.

I am not the first person to complain about in-flight waste management or the lack thereof. In February, a report released by Green America slammed the airline industry for its failure to take action in this area. The report, which estimates that each passenger generates about 1.3 lb. (0.59 kg) of waste per flight, says U.S. airlines could be recycling up to 75% of onboard waste, compared with the 20% that is recycled today. Though the 11 major carriers ranked in the report acknowledge that it's important to recycle, none have a program to collect the four major categories of recyclables on board: paper, plastic, glass and aluminum. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), each year U.S. airlines throw out enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747s.

Although a few U.S. airports have sorting systems in place to separate planes' recyclables and waste, the NRDC says that at most airports, if trash doesn't get sorted on board, chances are that all of it will simply end up in landfills.

Here's what United, which is ranked 10th on Green America's list, has to say on its website about its nascent recycling program: "As a first step, we recycle all aluminum and plastic beverage containers from domestic flights that arrive in Hawaii. Next, we will be expanding our program to arrivals at other locations, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle-Tacoma airports."

Pretty weak, particularly considering that Horizon Air started its onboard-recycling program in the consumers-gone-wild '80s. Today, the Seattle-based regional airline, which was not included in the Green America rankings, recycles about 70% of all onboard waste.

But most airlines still have a lot of cleaning up to do. I am happy to do my part, whether that means boarding with an empty bladder (as Japan's All Nippon Airways suggested last year to reduce weight and fuel use) or separating my food scraps for composting. But do I need a separate bag for my soggy tissues and other trash? No. In fact, I doubt we still need the barf bags either. But better safe than sorry.