It’s not easy being green in the cabin

When it comes to matters of environmental conscientiousness and sustainability, the air transport industry often gets painted with a less-than-rosy hue in both the media and the court of public opinion. Despite gallant (and recently quite successful) efforts by major aircraft manufacturers to engineer more efficient jets and the best intentions of airports, airlines and suppliers, many hurdles remain between aviation and an ‘eco-friendly’ cachet.

Consider onboard waste; all the things that passengers use and then abandon in the cabin of the airplane. People often feel reassured by the sight of that familiar circle of folded arrows on their cup, napkin or sandwich box, indicating that this product can be recycled. The symbol tells us that we have chosen an airline that cares about the environment, and so too, by proxy, must we.

However, in many countries the recycling of waste from international flights is restricted by animal health and quarantine laws. A 2011 IATA report entitled ‘A Waste of a Waste’ stated: “Airline recycling efforts are being stifled by factors including a lack of suitable infrastructure and outdated regulations.”

In the three years since that report was published not much has changed. Laws designed to protect farming and wildlife from foreign diseases or contaminants, are possibly doing more harm than good.

It’s easy to point fingers. The airlines are too greedy! The airports are too slow! The governments are too short-sighted! Yet while we are pointing one finger outward, we must remember that three are pointing back in. Sometimes, it is the passenger’s perception of what is green (and what isn’t) that stands between airlines and a more sustainable way of operating.

Hermann Lahr is managing director of inflight product supply firm Global-C and member of the Green Chamber of the South, an organization promoting growth of sustainable economies. He thinks that regardless of where trash goes after the flight, we should all try harder to educate ourselves about where the products come from, and the resources that go into their creation.

For example, Global-C makes a variety of cups. One cup is made of a natural-looking, un-coloured cardboard and is lined with a PLA (polylactide, a polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch). Though slightly more costly than a typical paper or plastic cup, this item is made entirely from renewable materials and is now headed into production for an airline.

“But then you have a product like this one,” says Lahr, holding up small another white cup. “This looks like just another Styrofoam cup, but it’s made from recycled water bottles and it can be recycled again (assuming it’s used on a domestic flight). It is made out of petroleum, a non-renewable resource, but if you can recycle it over and over, and it’s made of something you are using already, then maybe this regular-looking foam cup is the greener solution. But the first challenge with this cup is that you need to communicate what it is (the cup literally says “I’m made of bottles” right on it), so now we arrive back at the issue of perception.”

On the interiors side of the equation, the vast majority of materials that make up aircraft cabins are sent to landfill, either because they are too difficult to recycle or the market value for recycled products is too low.

Paul-Ernest Cheron, VP strategy & marketing for aircraft interiors giant B/E Aerospace, says the company has “a sustainability initiative internally to minimize the amount of waste and [maximize] recyclability of our products”. But, more broadly, the larger focus for the airline industry is on engine optimization to reduce fuel consumption and weight reduction initiatives in the cabin rather than recyclability of the cabin interior. “So it’s a trend and I think it’s something that will always be there so we’re working on it,” but reducing the overall carbon footprint is the current aim, he says.

A fledgling UK-based company, called SD Aviation, specializes in recycling aircraft interiors and hold the ambitious goal of being positioned to recycle 100% of cabin materials within two years.

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