Planes, plastics and pandemics

Brought to their knees by COVID-19, can airlines prioritise safety as well as sustainability?

Writer: Aisha Farida Aminu
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Lucie Gourmet

For years, the airline industry has expressed interest in cutting back on its extensive use of in-flight single-use plastics such as headphones, food trays, cutlery, bottles and snack packs. The amount of waste generated by the industry was as high as 6.7 million tonnes in 2018 and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts this to increase to 10 million tonnes by 2030. The IATA also estimates that the number of daily flyers will almost double from 4.5 billion in 2019 to 8.2 billion by 2037.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, air travel all but ground to a halt due to travel restrictions. Suddenly, there was no need for in-flight plastic packaging as approximately 7.5 million flights were cancelled between January and July 2020. Landfills that typically received cabin waste likely saw less traffic. Before the pandemic, airlines like Etihad, Hi Fly and Air France had already started exploring recycling options and alternatives to plastic packaging. However, now, with general fears about the virus spreading on frequently touched surfaces, safety precautions necessary for the pandemic call for single-use disposable plastics over reusable items. But what implications could this have on the airline industry’s fight against single-use plastics?

As commercial flights begin to resume operations across the globe, airlines need to pay more attention to cabin sanitation. Whereas passengers could previously expect amenity kits, headphones, magazines and food trays, certain airlines are cutting back on such services to limit physical interaction between the flight crew and passengers. Airlines like Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines have temporarily discontinued trolley services. They will instead hand out snack bags, pre-plated meals, disposable cutlery and refreshments as passengers board, which will then be disposed of in sealed plastic bags. However, rather than shifting to disposable options, American Airlines will provide passengers with food and beverage items upon request and will sanitise and disinfect its reusable tableware, dishes, cutlery, glassware, headphones and linen after every use.

Additionally, a number of airlines will require passengers to wear masks and face shields on board. United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Japan Air, alongside many others, also encourage their cabin crew to wear masks and plastic gloves. Korean Air and Air New Zealand have specifically equipped their planes with biohazard kits that include face masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and hazmat suits for passengers that may need it, while American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines will provide hand sanitisers and wipes for cabin crew and passengers as they board. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes part of our new normal, should health take priority over environmental pollution? Should airlines stick to reliable and affordable single-use plastics by handing out disposable face-masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and gowns to their passengers in ziploc bags? The rise in global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) in relation to air travel could be detrimental to the environment. Most gloves and face masks are used once before being thrown away and are not recyclable or biodegradable. If this trend continues, it could result in the airline industry generating more waste in the future than the IATA forecasted. It could compound the industry’s contributions to plastic pollution and the contamination of waterways and oceans. Also, even if PPE was recyclable, it would have to be treated separately as medical waste in order to limit the spread of disease. As a result, airline waste collection methods would have to change to include separate bins for personal protective gear.

Or can airlines find a way to reduce their carbon footprint while simultaneously prioritising their passengers’ health and safety? Some are confident that this is possible, as demonstrated by multiple innovations being developed and tested to help the airline industry get back on track, post-pandemic. These range from eco-friendly sanitary designs of meal-trays, socially-distanced airplane seats and antimicrobial cabin air filters to contact-free check-ins and antimicrobial security trays for airports. 

Passengers could also play a role by bringing their own reusable protective gear and sanitary items on board. Airlines could reinforce this by imposing regulations that ensure passengers and cabin crew only use reusable protective gear while in flight. Other accompanying measures could be to adopt biodegradable plastic packaging for in-flight snacks, beverages and amenity kits, or fully transition to reusable items. However, these environmentally friendly health and safety precautions would require the airline industry to invest large amounts of money and time, which may not be possible for smaller airlines that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Nevertheless, as innovation gets scaled up for mass production and air travel begins to ramp up, we can be optimistic that airlines will uphold their end of the bargain to keep us safe and ensure the industry’s strides to reduce plastic use continue unabated.


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