Image: United Airlines

The United Nations’ 46th World Environment Day took place on June 5. This year’s theme was air pollution. With more eyes focusing on aviation’s growing contribution to rising CO2 levels, airlines are finding new ways to reduce their footprint.

Air travel currently accounts for 2% of global emissions, but this could rise by 300-700% between 2020 and 2050, according to forecasts by the International Civil Aviation Organization. With that in mind, airlines used June 5 to demonstrate some of the steps they’re taking to begin reducing their carbon footprint.

For this year’s World Environment Day on June 5, Air France Flight AF378, operated by a Boeing 787 Dreamliner flying from Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Detroit, offered products made of bio-based materials instead of the single-use plastic items that are usually distributed on board.

Since 2011, the airline has managed to decrease CO2 emissions per passenger by 20% and has reduced its total net emissions from 2005 to 2018 by 7%, despite rising air traffic.

To continue its efforts, Air France also announced it is committing to eliminating 1,300 tons of single-use plastic from its in-flight service. The French carrier said this would amount to 210 million single-use plastic items by the end of 2019, which will be replaced by sustainable alternatives on all flights.

This will involve 100 million plastic cups being replaced by paper cups; 85 million plastic cutlery items that will be substituted with bio-based materials and packaging; and 25 million plastic stirring sticks that will be replaced with wooden stirrers.

Air France also touted its program that allows customers to donate to a reforestation program. Around 85,500 trees have already been planted through the airline’s “Trip and Tree” initiative, which allows passengers to reduce the environmental impact of their trip by funding a scheme to plant trees that reabsorb carbon.

United Airlines also highlighted its new environmental credentials. It operated what it claimed was the “most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of aviation.”

The Chicago-based airline marked World Environment Day with the takeoff of the so-called “Flight for the Planet” from Chicago O’Hare to Los Angeles International Airport. United said it represented the first commercial flight that simultaneously used a 30/70 blend of low-carbon sustainable aviation biofuel, zero-cabin-waste efforts, carbon offsetting and operational efficiencies.

“The historic Flight for the Planet showcases United’s philosophy of working together to find new and innovative ways to lead us into a more sustainable future,” said Scott Kirby, United’s president. “As an airline, we see our environment from a unique perspective every day and we know we must do our part to protect our planet and our skies.”

United also announced changes to its onboard catering service. In the economy cabin, United now serves snacks with recyclable or compostable serviceware, including a test of a recyclable hot beverage cup made of paper. In premium cabins, United is swapping plastic lids for wrappers made of bees’ wax.

Delta Air Lines also announced an eco-friendly step. The airline said it will eliminate the plastic wrap on its TUMI-branded in-flight amenity kits, a move that it says will divert almost 14 tons of plastic from landfills.