Airlines produce a lot of garbage. Think about the plastic wraps covering your meal, your pair of headphones and blanket, as well as the straws, napkins, and sugar packets that litter the aisles.
United Continental Holdings Inc., which owns United Airlines, said they average 29kg of garbage a flight—and it’s unlikely that much of it is recycled.
In an effort to recognise World Environment Day the airline launched a “green” flight this morning from Chicago to Los Angeles, flying with a mixture of biofuel, purchasing carbon offsets, and reducing their overall garbage through methods like recyclable cups. Notably, however, this is just a single flight and not an ongoing effort.
While zero waste travel isn’t a future we’ll realise anytime soon, every traveller can reduce their own garbage by changing their habits; it’s often as simple as refusing to use as much single-use trash as possible and carrying reusable alternatives.
Freeze any food and unplug electronics
There are a few things you should do at home to reduce your individual waste before you board your flight. For one, you should freeze any food in your fridge if you’re headed on a week-long trip, or offer it to someone who might want it.
Also, unplug a number of your electronics before leaving, including those with external power supplies (or “power bricks”), anything on sleep or standby mode, small appliances (like a microwave or coffee machine), and modems or router—all of which draw power. Be sure to turn off any air conditioning units and your water heater if possible, as these can also use up electricity when not in use.
Pack a zero waste kit
The easiest way to reduce your own waste is to be prepared and pack your own zero waste kit with reusable items. (In this instance, zero waste is just a goal, as it’s unlikely to actually produce no waste at all.) “Think about the single-use plastic items you might encounter during your travels and bring some reusable swaps,” Polly Barks, a zero waste expert, said via email.
“Think reusable hot/cold travel mugs instead of water bottles or single-use coffee cups, a real fork, cloth napkin, snacks in reusable containers, etc.”
Reusable water bottles or jugs are key; you can fill them up after going through security and skip the expensive plastic versions at airports. (You can ask an airline attendant to fill your bottle, rather than use a cup.) Bring your own snacks, too; you can refuse any of the pretzels or crackers, which can then be used by passengers on subsequent flights.
Of course, you should also refuse any other single-use trash, like straws or napkins; if an attendant hands you a napkin anyway, just bring it with you for later use so at least it doesn’t go to waste. (If they offer you an entire soda can, take it with you so you can recycle it later.)
You can also bring your own pair of headphones and a sweater to reduce some of the plastic you’d have to use from unwrapping the airline’s headphones or blanket.
On the other hand, don’t refuse meals on international flights solely in an effort to produce less garbage.—it’s likely that any uneaten food and trash will be incinerated, in accordance with local laws. If you’re flying domestic or on a low-cost flight, however, typically uneaten food and drinks will be used for later flights.
Purchase carbon offsets
You might find the option to buy carbon offsets when purchasing airfare; these are donations to green organisations that help to offset carbon emissions from your trip. “An organisation calculates the cost of your carbon emission and you pay the monetary equivalent,” Barks said.
It’s a bit of a sticky business, as Afar writes. Critics argue it’s just throwing money at a problem and calculating offsets based on money is a little murky.
Also, many initiatives involve planting trees to offset your emissions, which can take years and years before taking up a substantial amount of carbon. (In other words, they’re just not that efficient.)
Still, it’s better than nothing, though it’s worth considering to whom you’re donating when you decide to purchase these offsets. “It’s not a perfect solution (this is just a long-term solution that does nothing to lessen the immediate impact of your travel), but it can help you feel better and support worthy programs,” Barks added.
United, for example, works with Conservation International, which will calculate your carbon footprint from a given flight, come up with a monetary value, and will be donated to global conservation efforts of forests and wildlife (and not just planting trees).
Barks recommends using Terrapass to calculate your carbon numbers. Once you have that in mind, you can also donate to organisations not affiliated with your airline; you can use Green-E’s list of vetted organisations, for example, so you can find a worthy cause.