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.