Where your rubbish ends up on an aircraft

What happens to your rubbish on the aircraft? It doesn’t get recycled thats for sure!

I was sitting in the galley last night flying from Singapore to Brisbane and a passenger came down to get some water (we were slacking with our water runs last night). After pouring her a glass, she drank it, and it went straight into the bin. That sentence might not mean much to some but even rewriting that irks me. That plastic cup had one use, its time of usefulness approximately 15 seconds AND THAT WAS IT! How can we justify continued use of something like that? Obviously, we have to provide you with what you need to be comfortable on a flight; but on a full flight, with hundreds of passengers having multiple drinks, across multiple aircrafts on different routes daily you can begin to get a picture of our overall waste and contributions to the destruction of our environment.

The conversation doesn’t begin and end at cups though. Every single item we get on the aircraft is plastic wrapped, sometimes double plastic wrapped. We have single use cardboard cups for hot drinks too. All components of our service are plastic, our “service standard” means every item we give to a passenger needs to be accompanied by a napkin. All mixed alcoholic beverages get a plastic swizzle stick. Cardboard packaging for our snacks get shoved into plastic rubbish bags, pre-packaged cutlery get wrapped again in plastic, sugar sachets get wrapped in plastic. We wrap plastic in plastic and then bag it in plastic. By the end of the flight most of our service carts will be filled with bags full of landfill waste. Australian recycling restrictions have placed limitations on what we can recycle from the aircraft because of food and drink particles left in items; at least that’s what we’re told.

As an individual who does what I can to make sure my actions are having minimal impact on the environment, I’ve come to find that working on board an aircraft is difficult. The amount of unrecycled waste we generate is embarrassing. I can only speak the truth to what I’ve observed for the airline I work for as a flight attendant in the economy cabin. That’s the situation that we deal with onboard. Saying there is room for improvement is an understatement; but as a lot of us would have experienced, waiting for organisations and corporations to make the decision to do the right and responsible thing rather than the cost effective and easy option can be as painful as waiting for grass to grow.

Being the change, you wish to see in the world is a good start, at least while we wait for important people to make important decisions about things that we know should be happening.

While it may not seem like it, individual efforts can make a huge difference. So here are some tips for travellers to encourage and let you know it’s more than okay to be doing these things on an aircraft.

  1. Keep cups, flasks, reusable cups.

Bringing one of these items onboard with you is probably one of the most effective ways as a passenger you can help. By doing so you’re reducing or even eliminating the number of plastic cups and cardboard cups you use while flying. This applies for crew members as well, I don’t travel without my travel cup. By declining the unrecycled onboard plastic and cardboard cups and instead using the cup you’ve brought not only reduces waste but sends a message to everyone around you as you lead by example.

  1. Drink the onboard water.

Passengers constantly ask for fresh water bottles that we provide on board or cans of sparkling water and crew do the same. We’re so lucky to have access to clean drinkable water. Our onboard tap water is no exception to this. Refill your own bottles and reusable cups, you really don’t have to be continuously using bottled water or cans. None of these items get recycled. Take advantage of the privilege of safe drinking water while also refusing to use items that we don’t recycle onboard.

  1. Accountability.

The best way to create a difference and to hold industries accountable is to let them know what we’re unhappy about. I can’t even begin to tell you how many conversations I’ve had with passengers curious to know about our food wastage, rubbish collection and whether or not we recycle. I wonder what those people do after that conversation, because I write about it. I write to my airline, fill out reports complete the surveys, I write blogs about it! If you don’t ask, you won’t get, and I’m continuously asking for change and so should you.

While these are just environmentally conscious decisions that you can make on a daily basis all airlines should be stepping up and addressing the issue.

  • Why are we not finding a way to recycle products, plastic/cardboard cups, cans, bottles?
  • Why aren’t we using reusable products including cutlery, bowls and dishes for the entire aircraft?
  • Why is everything wrapped in plastic?
  • Is this acceptable practice given the current environmental crisis?

At what point will the decision get made to disregard the bottom line to help ensure the future of the planet. The airline industry could be doing a lot more and should be doing a lot more.


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