Air Travel Has a Plastic Packaging Problem


On a recent 15-hour journey from Newark to Hong Kong, I was faced with a parade of single-use disposables. There was the plastic-wrapped blanket and plastic-bagged earbuds, for starters. Then came the plastic-packed “Asian” snack mix, the plastic-lined hot beverage cups, and the plastic cold beverage cups ringed with embossed circles.

The long-haul meals—a five-spice chicken with rice and green beans, scrambled eggs with bits of turkey and a side of seasoned potatoes—stewed in still more plastic, including individual bags for the rolls, miscellaneous containers for the attendant spreads and condiments, and disposable plastic sheaths that swaddled an assemblage of equally disposable plastic flatware. For a mid-flight snack, we were handed a plastic-wrapped cheese sandwich, inexplicably stuffed along with a packet of M&Ms and a paper napkin into a larger plastic bag. A flight attendant insisted on pushing half-size bottles of Dasani—also made of plastic, albeit “partially sourced from plants”—despite my fervent protestations.

By the time I stumbled onto terra firma, sore and bleary-eyed, I was in a green guilt spiral. While the aviation industry is often pilloried for pumping Arctic-melting carbon emissions into the atmosphere, single-use plastics are a growing scourge on the planet. Only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, scientists say. The bulk of it, whether poured into landfills or drifting as litter above ground, frequently ends up in the oceans, a.k.a. the “final sink,” where it remains forever. Dead whales, washed ashore, regularly carry inside them the instruments of our convenience. Microplastics—the result of mismanaged plastic waste tumbled into smaller pieces by the action of waves, sediment, or the sun—have infiltrated the loneliest reaches of the planet, the stomachs of deep-sea creatures, and even the human gut.

But I’m hardly alone in my complicity.

Airline passengers alone generated 5.7 million tons of waste globally in 2016, most of which went to landfills or the incinerator, according to the International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group of some 290 airlines. By 2030, this number is expected to nearly double to an annual 10 million tons.

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