LCA4Climate Research


Innovation to address in-flight waste

Cada año, los vuelos generan millones de toneladas de residuos

Innovación para la gestión de residuos desde el aire Zero Cabin Waste

“Nos disponemos a iniciar el despegue. Por favor, abróchense los cinturones. Relájense y disfruten del vuelo”. Antes de que te des cuenta, los asistentes de vuelo te ofrecerán algún snack o bebida. No te precipites, es posible que quieras saber que eventualmente se convertirán en residuos y por qué son un problema.

In recent years, global concern about aircraft carbon emissions has been rising, given the fact that flights produce greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) from burning fuel that contribute to global warming. But have you ever wondered how much in-flight waste you generate as a passenger on a plane? The answer will leave no-one indifferent. On the one hand, we have the leftover rubbish from newspapers, paper towels, plastic bottles, food dropped on the floor, or plastic wrapping from headsets, among others. While, on the other hand, we have the catering waste that comes from in-flight meals, snacks, and beverages.

Every day, a typical passenger generates 1.43 kg of cabin waste, according to IATA.

Now, think of the airline in-flight waste impact on the environment this way: according to a pilot study at Heathrow Airport in London by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), every day, a typical passenger generates 1.43 kg of cabin waste. 23% of which is untouched food and drink and a further 17% comprised of recyclable materials such as plastic bottles and newspapers. In 2018, this equates to approximately 6.1 million tones of cabin waste. But there is more to come: as the world has become richer, air travel has become cheaper, and without smarter regulation, “cabin waste volumes could double in the next 10 years,” warns IATA. Consequently, some airlines are working to change that.

The airline sector has rightly recognised the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling in-flight waste from its flight operations. Furthermore, airlines are increasingly looking to improve in-flight cabin waste management, while resonating with passengers’ concerns about the impact of single-use plastics on the marine environment.

Aviation sector solutions

As aviation sector efforts increase worldwide, so does its media coverage. Recently, the world-renowned newspaper The New York Times has devoted a feature article to the efforts being made worldwide to tackle in-flight waste. By way of example, the newspaper has echoed a refashioned economy meal tray by a British design firm, replacing plastic with renewable materials such as coffee grounds, banana leaves, and coconut wood. The same initiative has been covered by BBC News that has quoted the product’s designer, Jo Rowan: “It’s about weight as much as waste. When it comes to flying, lighter weight means less emissions.” As a matter of fact, it focuses on killing two birds with one stone.

But what would happen to this meal tray leftovers when waste would land at an airport? As stated by IATA, all cabin waste is subject to national waste management controls that limit pollution, but many countries have also introduced restrictions on catering waste from international flights to protect their agricultural sector. “Airline meals are prepared using stringent hygiene and quality control standards, originally designed for NASA astronauts, but the regulations often lead to the incineration of all cabin waste with limited ability to reuse and recycle,” as pointed out by IATA. For example, Spanish legislation only contemplates waste generated on non-Community flights destination to landfills or incineration.

Life Zero Cabin Waste

Then, should not we look deeper into the airline waste management system with a comprehensive approach? Among the initiatives mentioned in both media, we can find the work performed by the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF in search for improving the management of in-flight waste. The Chair is currently running perhaps the broadest initiative to address the problem: The European Union’s Life programme Zero Cabin Waste* project developed by Spain’s biggest airline, Iberia, together with Ecoembes, Gate Gourmet (GG), Ferrovial and ESCI-UPF.

“Identifying the composition of the waste and its origin is essential to plan efficient and differentiated management towards a substantial improvement of the entire process,” says Blanca-Alcubilla.

Life Zero Cabin Waste is aimed at improving the management of both recyclable and organic wastes generated by onboard catering: “Our goal is to create an integrated model to properly separate the cabin waste on board through a life cycle perspective, while contributing to reducing the carbon footprint associated to the generation and the current inadequate management of cabin waste, and set the basis for replication through standard protocols,” explains Gonzalo Blanca-Alcubilla, researcher at the UNESCO Chair ESCI-UPF responsible for the project. Thanks to this, Iberia aims to recycle 80% of the in-flight waste, avoiding emitting 4,340 tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to the emissions of 340 Madrid-Barcelona flights.

To this end, researchers at the Chair have analysed nearly 4,000 kg of rubbish on 145 flights into Madrid founding that 33% was food waste, 28% was cardboard and paper waste, and about 12% was plastic. “Identifying the composition of the waste and its origin is essential to plan efficient and differentiated management towards a substantial improvement of the entire process,” the researcher says. “Having studied the different waste streams generated in the aircraft cabin, we are now able to propose efficient minimization measures and to implement a correct separation of residues, as well as its collection and treatment,” he adds.

According to the director at the Chair and co-author of the study, Pere Fullana i Palmer, the results of this analysis have shown that the use of bi-compartmentalized waste trolleys to separate on-board recyclable materials from the rest is desirable to obtain a clean recoverable waste stream. Furthermore, suppressing unpopular food from menus, identified analysing the leftovers, could also reduce the amount of waste generated. Meanwhile, researchers at the Chair continue working on design a more sustainable waste management system.





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