Just One Thing: Can Airlines Wean Off Single-Use Plastics?


Image: Nicolás Venturelli

As news feeds flood with images of plastic-filled waterways and governments announce bans on single-use plastics, what can airlines do to address environmental woes?

Just because a product is labeled recyclable doesn’t mean it will actually find its way to the appropriate recycling facility. In fact, 91 percent of all plastic that can be recycled worldwide is being discarded into landfills or, worse, floating in oceans. The problem isn’t plastic alone – it’s also a society that isn’t properly closing the loop on its life cycle, says Bill Carrejo, director of Sales and Sustainability at Linstol, an airline amenity supplier working with 89 international airlines to mitigate the industry’s environmental footprint. “Plastics do exactly what we intended them to, but as a society, we are terrible about properly disposing of them,” he says.

Due to strict quarantine regulations that require passenger waste from international flights be incinerated or taken to a landfill to avoid contamination, airlines are among the biggest culprits. Almost 80 percent of all food and drinks served in flight use single-use plastics and, according to IATA, airlines are on track to generating 10€¯million tonnes of waste by 2030 – the bulk of which is plastic.

Linstol began its research into single-use plastic alternatives about two years ago, and quickly realized the issue wasn’t a shortage of options, but rather a lack of relevance for airlines. Plastics are lightweight and low-cost, can be produced in large quantities and reliably perform their tasks. “The issue is that we needed to find materials that were realistic for the airline industry – that meet the performance expectations of the product being replaced and are sustainable in terms of cost and production,” Carrejo explains.

The company landed on a variety of materials that function like plastic but are biodegradable, so airlines needn’t worry about whether waste ends up in landfills or incineration plants. “Bamboo, for instance, is a good option because once it is burned into ash, it leaves less than one percent of its mass behind, and if it ends up in a landfill, airlines can rest assured that it’ll biodegrade,” Carrejo says. In Q4 of 2018, one of Linstol’s US airline customers eliminated 70,000 pounds of plastic by simply replacing plastic stir sticks with the bamboo alternative. “And that move was just about cost neutral,” he adds.

Other than bamboo, the company’s new range of sustainable products includes sugarcane, wheat, cornstarch, palm leaf and rice husk – each with benefits and drawbacks that airlines need to understand, and Linstol is intent on educating them, Carrejo says. “If an airline was to switch to wheat straws, for example, it should know that the available straw capacity is only what the harvest of wheat is for that year – probably only 150€¯million straws – and there is no way to increase production if something happens to a shipment or the harvest was affected by inclement weather. This particular product would need an eight- to 10-month production lead time to be managed effectively.”

“I have used every piece of unbiased information I could get my hands on to understand the entire manufacturing process for a product.” €” Bill Carrejo, Linstol

While undertaking product research, Linstol came across its share of greenwashing. “The terms ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘biodegradable,’ ‘compostable’ and ‘recyclable’ are vastly overused and misused,” Carrejo says. Even in the industry, he’s encountered airlines that have made the swap to compostable cups, only to find out that “there aren’t nearly enough commercial composting facilities in the US to ensure these cups they paid more for weren’t actually ending up in landfills.”

And the research doesn’t end there. “I have used every piece of unbiased information that I could get my hands on to understand the entire manufacturing process for a product and how that also affects the environment,” Carrejo says. This includes sending a procurement team to the far-flung sites where materials are sourced to examining the inner workings of local waste management and continually searching for new alternatives. “New biodegradable options are emerging all the time – made from algae, fungi, crustacean shells, hemp, seaweed and many others – but these just aren’t there yet,” he says.

By peeling away the green sheen, Linstol aims to shift the conversation away from industry buzzwords and naïve trend following to real, viable change. But airlines needn’t feel pressured to swap out their entire meal service in one go, Carrejo says: “Changing even just one thing can help. So why not replace a plastic sauce dish with a bowl made from a fallen palm leaf? It’s that easy – and now you’ve started making a difference.”

“Just One Thing” was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.