You use it, they bin it. Why can't airlines do a better job with recycling?
Sitting on a plane watching garbage bags being filled with cups, cans and meal packaging I asked myself: is this really 2013?
In an era of environmental awareness and recycling, are we seriously letting all this go into landfill?
With global international passenger numbers approaching 3 billion a year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the amount of waste coming out of plane galleys must be incredible.
Some airlines, including Qantas, have made serious efforts to reduce and recycle but others are still doing little.
Recycling is, of course, just one piece of the environmental puzzle for airlines, with many focused on initiatives such as reducing emissions, testing biofuels, improving operational efficiencies and reducing water use.
But onboard waste is no minor issue, with a Green America report in 2010 finding the average airline passenger generated about half a kilogram of waste per flight. Multiply that by 3 billion passengers and that's an awful lot of rubbish that has to go somewhere.
The Green America report found that while 75 per cent of onboard waste was recyclable, only about 20 per cent was being recycled.
There are two key challenges to airline recycling. The first – and hardest – is quarantine regulations, which prevent the recycling of cabin waste from many international flights, including those coming to Australia.
Waste that could otherwise be recycled is quarantined or incinerated due to fears of contamination from overseas pests or diseases.
The second big barrier is the logistics of providing recycling collection facilities at airports, which occupy valuable real estate and are in the business of providing passenger services rather than environmental programs.
There is a further challenge related to weight, with reusable items generally heavier than plastic ones and more weight equalling more fuel, more emissions, more cost.
Virgin Atlantic, a leader in airline environmental issues, showed when it altered its inflight meal packaging that even small changes in weight made a big difference.
By moving to lighter packaging, which also comes from more sustainable sources, the airline has made an average weight saving of 129 kilograms per flight, equating to 762 tonnes of fuel a year.
Qantas is nearly four years into an onboard recycling program for domestic flights, in conjunction with recycling in its Qantas Club lounges. The airline says it is recycling about 6.5 million bottles, cups and cans a year, equating to about 29 million since the program started.
Qantas says it is working with quarantine officials on a solution for international waste but at this stage cannot extend recycling to international flights.
British Airways has made some progress with aluminium drink can recycling in place for international flights to Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
The cans go straight into recycling bags on the aircraft to prevent contamination from food waste, thereby avoiding quarantine issues.
Virgin Australia, which has been a leader in carbon offsetting and reducing emissions, is just getting started with onboard waste reduction.
It launched a sustainability program last financial year with initiatives that include reducing the packaging associated with inflight meals and replacing disposable trays with ones that can be reused.
Virgin says it diverted 195 tonnes of plastic packaging from landfill in the 2012-13 financial year. It is now trialling an onboard recycling program focused on paper products such as newspapers and magazines.
Alaska Airlines and its sister airline Horizon Air are a good example of what can be collected from planes. Items they recycle include paper, cardboard, coffee cups, plastic bottles, snack trays, aluminium cans and even coffee grounds. They divert more than 270 tonnes of waste from landfill each year.
Other airlines making good inroads into waste reduction and recycling include Air France-KLM, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Delta, collecting items ranging from drink cans to spare customs forms.
Non-food related items are also getting a second life under some recycling programs. Old crew uniforms, blankets, pillows and even seat cushions are being recycled into products such as pillows, mattresses and carpets, to extend their life beyond the short time they spend on a plane.