Here’s Why It Matters That Airlines Are Starting To Run ‘Zero-Waste’ Flights


Customers on a May 8th Qantas flight from Sydney to Adelaide found themselves the guinea pigs for a new airline initiative. But instead of what you might think of when you hear, “new airline initiative” — smaller seats or gut-punches upon boarding — the Australian airline is testing out efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and flew their first zero-landfill-waste flight.

The flight included biodegradable meal packaging made from sugar cane, cutlery made from non-GMO starch, napkins made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified pulp, and more. All of the in-flight items were either recycled or composted. Any non-recyclable plastics on the flight were taken by Qantas partner SUEZ, which will convert them into non-fossil fuel materials for cement-making.

Qantas isn’t the only airline starting to test flights without waste. For Earth day this year, Etihad Airlines ran a flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane without any single-use plastics on board. And while these zero-waste flights are currently limited to one-time events, they’re part of a larger push for airlines to go greener.

Qantas Domestic CEO Andrew David told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Our cabin crews see this waste every day and they want it eliminated. And increasingly, our shareholders are demanding we do more to address our environmental footprint.”

Here’s how they’re doing it and why it matters.

Why zero waste?

Flying is a high footprint activity. There’s no skirting that fact. According to Yale Climate Communications, “about 2-3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions annually are produced by planes” — to say nothing about the landfill waste produced on each flight. Think about it: shrink-wrapped headphones, single-serving plastic cups of water and ginger ale, plastic cutlery, laser-printed paper tickets.

In an official statement, Qantas said that the Sydney-to-Adelaide route, which is just over 2 hours long, produces about 74 pounds of waste each flight and that the airline produces the equivalent of “80 fully-laden Boeing 747 jumbos” of waste each year across Qantas and Jetstar operations.

Qantas flight attendant Maddie Rowcliff described the waste:

We see how much waste there is physically every day, and it is kind of sickening and we are already in an industry that is not very environmentally friendly. […] The only thing we could be recycling on a normal flight is cups, cans, water bottles and newspapers that go into the green bags on flight, everything else would go into a combined bag.

In other words, “everything else” would go straight to the landfill.

What’s the problem with landfills, anyways?

Most modern landfills aren’t the dumps of pop culture past, where trash gets piled up haphazardly in some dark corner of the world. Instead, modern landfills are tightly packed and layered with clay, rubber, plastic liners, and pipelines that contain and subsequently treat leachate (the gnarly liquid that leeches out of decomposing trash). When the landfill is full, it’s covered with yet more clay and another plastic liner, then topped with soil and plants.

But despite the fact that containment and leachate treatment are at the center of modern waste disposal, according to Live Science, “Landfills are not designed to break down waste, only to store it, according to the [National Solid Wastes Management Association]. But garbage in a landfill does decompose, albeit slowly and in a sealed, oxygen-free environment. Because of the lack of oxygen, bacteria in the waste produce methane gas” which is a greenhouse gas that is approximately 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

According to a 2013 study on the environmental impacts of landfills, the negative impacts of these dumps — even modern ones developed with environmental barriers and leachate treatment sites— are vast:

Construction and management of landfills have ecological effects that may lead to landscape changes, loss of habitats and displacement of fauna. Socio-economic impacts of landfills include risks for public health derived from surface or groundwater contamination by leachate, the diffusion of litter into the wider environment and inadequate on-site recycling activities. Nuisances such as flies, odors, smoke and noise are frequently cited among the reasons why people do not want to reside close to landfills.

And to put things into perspective, over half of the waste Americans produce goes to the landfill. Australia is doing a little better, but about 40 percent of their waste still goes to a landfill as well. And the world at large is experiencing a global trash crisis to the tune of 1.3 billion tons of waste produced per year.

That means a large portion of the waste generated by humans is creating toxic messes that release greenhouse gases into the air, worsening climate change, and can contaminate groundwater and pose other health risks.

Is there really that much trash on a flight?

In the grand scheme of things: absolutely, especially when you consider what kind of trash is being generated while flying. Qantas’s zero-waste initiative is part of a broader push to eliminate single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, shrink-wrap, coffee stirrers, and single-serving creamers.

While single-use plastic is convenient, it’s also a scourge. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, isn’t biodegradable (taking thousands of years to decompose), and is “choking marine life and transforming some marine areas into a plastic soup,” according to a U.N. Environment report on single-use plastics.

We should be especially concerned about single-use plastics and over-reliance on landfills because pollution is one of the driving forces behind the human-caused mass extinction that is happening on the planet. Currently, 1,000,000 species are threatened, and if we don’t act quickly to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity, life as we know it could be at risk.

Will this really help?

Yes, but there’s still much more to do. Qantas has plans to replace “45 million plastic cups, 30 million cutlery sets, and four million headrest covers with sustainable alternatives over the next year.” They’re joining companies like Alaska Airlines, which has a robust sustainability program and has reduced emissions by 15 percent since 2013, in working to go greener.

That said, more people are flying now than ever before, and the New York Times writes that upwards of 50,000 planes could be in the air by 2040. So that means that we, as individuals, also have to help, whether by buying carbon offsets, flying less, or committing to eliminating single-use plastics from our lives.