Report Uncovers Scary Details of Airline Recycling

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According to Green America's report, airlines generate more than 880 million pounds of waste annually. While 75 percent is recyclable, only 20 percent of that waste is actually recycled. Photo: Flickr/caribb

Ever wonder what happens to the soda cans, napkins and plastic cups that disappear down the aisle with the flight attendant? According to a new study, much of that waste probably won’t land in a recycling bin.

Airlines generate more than 880 million pounds of waste each year. While 75 percent is recyclable, only 20 percent is actually recycled, according to consumer watchdog Green America in its Responsible Shopper report on the state of airline recycling.

“It’s really something the public needs to be aware of,” says Victoria Kreha, the lead author of the report and responsible shopper coordinator for Green America. “The fact that there are airlines out there that aren’t even recycling aluminum cans is pretty insidious.”

In 2004, airlines threw away enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747 jets, 9,000 tons of plastic and enough newspaper and magazines to cover a football field 230 meters deep, according to the National Resource Defense Council. About 500 million more tons of material could be recycled each year by airline industries – half of which is generated in-flight, the study reports.

If airlines continue their recycling habits as usual, those figures won’t change. Green America graded 11 airlines after reviewing a variety of sources. The highest grade, a B-, went to Delta Airlines and Virgin America, while both United Airlines and US Airways were given an F.

“We were just surprised at how little the airline industries as a whole is actually doing,” Kreha says. “None of the companies actually was recycling everything it should be recycling.”

But Green America is doing more than just pointing a finger at the airline industries.  The nonprofit company acknowledges some of the sustainable initiatives airlines are pursuing as well.

Delta recycles much of the waste generated during the flight at major airports. Flight attendants from American Airlines created an aluminum can recycling program which proceeds go to charitable organizations. Virgin America has eliminated in-flight magazines to decrease waste, and British Airlines has set a goal of sending zero waste to landfills in the U.K. by 2010.

Green America encourages frequent fliers to sign a letter addressed to airline CEOs, making it clear that recycling is an important issue. Passengers can also fill out a form on Green America’s Web site, detailing whether or not in-flight waste was recycled on their last trip.

“A passenger can ask a flight attendant, ‘Are you going to be recycling that aluminum can?’ Or, ‘What’s going to happen to my beverage container or my newspaper?’ They can then fill out this form and submit it to us,” explains Kreha.

Responsible shopper will collect data from thousands of airline passengers for a follow-up report to be released at the end of the year. Kreha says it’s a way to persuade the industry to clean up its act and embrace eco-friendly initiatives.

“This way we can target companies and say, ‘Look, you guys need to do a lot better; you really need to amp up your recycling programs. We found that you’re really not where you need to be, and we have the numbers to back it up.'”

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