Less Waste Flying: 10 Ways To Minimise Waste When Taking Flights

Reusable Nation - reducing waste when flying

While flying is by no means sustainable, there are a few ways in which you can reduce the impact you make when you choose to take flight. Here's 10 ways you can lower your impact.

Flying is by no means a sustainable activity and will never be a zero waste activity. In fact, it is highly unsustainable and something that we should all avoid if there are other ways of getting to where we’re going - using public transport, hiring a car and driving, and going by bike, boat, bus or train are all much eco-friendlier forms of transport.

If flying for business, if at all possible, find other ways of connecting with clients or colleagues, like using Skype or another web conferencing technology to have meetings online instead of flying to meet face to face. People should not be flying on a day to day basis to get to work or to conduct business in this day and age.

Flying is usually the thing that blows out otherwise eco-aware peeps’ ecological footprint, including ours. We are currently at 1.8 Earths and would be down to 0.8 Earths if it wasn’t for our travel! You can calculate your personal ecological footprint and Earth Overshoot Day here: www.footprintcalculator.org.

Living in Australia, we end up flying pretty far to visit our family, who live in South Africa, and friends, who are spread out all over the world, and to go on holiday.

We are fully aware of the bad effect each and every flight we take has and, while the below steps don’t offset the entire impact by any means, they do minimise the waste we create when flying.

1. Take your reusable water bottle

Pack a reusable water bottle into your handbag or on-flight luggage and fill it up after you have gone through security. There are generally water fountains you can use for this or ask a cafe or restaurant to fill it up for you (I’ve had mixed results with this though).

You can’t take large amounts of liquid through security, so don’t fill it up before you go through security as you’ll just have to throw it out.

Some flights we have been on have had a second security check to go through just before the boarding gate, meaning we’ve had to pour out our water after we’ve filled it up after the main security check and have had no way to fill it up again as there are no fountains or cafes at the actual gate. Infuriating!

However, if this happens, don’t despair! Just ask a flight attendant to fill it up once the plane is up in the air. They have jugs or large bottles of bottled water they can fill it up with. At least you’ll avoid the small plastic bottles of water they give out and you won’t have to bug them for more water throughout the flight.

Don’t fill it up with the water from the tap in the toilets - this isn’t drinkable!

2. Take your own food or order a special meal

A meal isn’t included on most domestic flights, instead it is offered for a fee (and not a small fee!) on the flight. This makes avoiding the waste associated with airplane food easy on these flights. Simply eat before you board, if the flight is short enough for you to not need a meal while in the air, or pack your own snacks and food to eat while on the plane.

Food items are allowed through security, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but if they are in liquid form i.e. soft and pourable, as with any liquid, they can’t exceed 3.4 ounces or 96 grams and any food items taken through security may be carefully scrutinised.

Only pack what you will eat on the flight, as most countries won’t let unpackaged food through customs and if you haven’t eaten it, it will have to be thrown away before going through customs.

We have personally never tested this. We generally buy something we can get in our own container at a cafe in the airport and generally use reusable sandwich bags or wrap it in a dishcloth. We also seek out pick ‘n mixes to get some zero waste sweets in our own container to ensure we get our sugar high while up high.

However, on most international flights there isn’t an option for no meal, so a meal will be made for you whether you eat it or not, and will be thrown out if you don’t. In fact, they make two meals per person so that you can get a choice between “chicken or fish”. So, that’s two meals in the bin.

The best you can do in this situation is to order a special meal. Tick the option for a halal, vegetarian, vegan, or other special meal and only one meal will be prepared for you.

There is so much with these meals that I usually save something for a snack later on if I get hungry. This way I can refuse the small snack they hand out later (generally a cookie, chocolate bar, or packet of peanuts or chips), which they won’t chuck in the bin if I don’t eat it (see number 6!).

3. Take something to use as a blanket

I freeze during a flight if I don’t have that blanket they give you over my legs. It also makes it easier for me to sleep if I have it wrapped around me. It brings warmth and comfort and I’m miserable without it.

Unfortunately, these generally come in a plastic bag, presumably so we all know it has been laundered and is clean and unused.

If, like me, you can’t handle the cold and need some comfort on a long flight, wear or pack into your carry-on luggage a large scarf or sarong that can double up as a blanket. I like using my scarf because wearing it means it doesn’t take up any space in my bag.

4. Take your own headphones

This is another item that is usually provided but that comes wrapped in plastic. Most of us already own our own set of headphones. Pack these in and refuse the ones offered by the airline.

I use a set of small in-ear ones, because I’d rather fill the space my over-the-ear ones take up in my bag with something else, while David packs in his large over-the-ear ones as he loves the fact that they are silencing ones - very useful when seated near crying babies!

5. If possible, use an online boarding pass instead of printing a ticket

When flying domestically, you can board your plane using the boarding pass on your mobile phone. Generally, when you check in to your flight online, you will get an email with a link to your boarding pass or your boarding pass will be attached.

Simply, bring your e-ticket up on your phone and show it to the flight attendant as you board at your gate to get on the plane. There is no need to get one printed out.

Unfortunately, our experience has been that you have no choice but to get one printed out when flying internationally.

6. Refuse anything offered that you don’t want/need

It is hard to not take everything offered to you by the air hostesses, especially when everyone else takes it and they expect you to take it and you completely ruin their rhythm by not taking it. But, most of what they hand out just ends up as waste. No one needs a pouch with a tiny toothbrush and toothpaste, eye covers and thin socks. Those hot white towels they hand out to clean your hands with end up in the trash from what we can tell and from what we’ve witnessed. Do you really need that plastic packaged cookie/chocolate/packet of peanuts they hand out mid flight?

Refusing anything unnecessary saves one of these items or their packaging from ending up in landfill (just yet). It hopefully also sends a message to the airline that these items are not wanted by passengers and they rethink their use or the way they offer them, for instance instead of handing them out to everyone, having snacks available in the back for people who really want a snack, so everyone doesn’t just end up eating it for the sake of eating it or just because it has been handed to them. I’ve seen this done on an airline before and think it’s a great way to avoid extra waste and all those uneaten snacks you see lying on the ground on the way out.

7. Take your reusable coffee cup

Useful for both in the airport and in the air, a reusable coffee cup allows you to get your coffee or tea in your own container.

A lot of coffee shops in airports only have disposable, single use cups available so make sure you have a reusable one handy to grab a pre-flight or stopover coffee. We also throw in a napkin and sandwich bag to use to get waste-free food in in airports in case there isn’t anywhere that serves it on real plates.

Some airports have the option of getting hot water from their water dispensing machines and I admit to occasionally using it to make tea in my reusable coffee cup using the loose leaf tea I carry with me in a glass test tube and my tiny tea infuser.

While in the air you can do the same - just ask a flight steward for some hot water to make tea or ask them to pour the coffee in your reusable cup instead of one of their wasteful ones.

Sometimes this isn’t an issue and they’re happy to oblige, but other times we have been told that they are not meant to do this, but they usually do it anyway. Doesn’t hurt to ask! If they refuse, I just go without.

8. Make sure any recyclable waste created is recycled

How an airline deals with its waste is not usually a criteria most of us take into account when booking a flight. Ticket price, available dates and the reputation of the airline are much more likely to be the reasons for choosing a specific airline.

However, some airlines are making changes to reduce and recycle the waste created in-flight and we should support these airlines over others that are not making these changes and not attempting to be more environmentally friendly.

For example, Qantas Future Planet's domestic in-flight program recycles up to 12 tonnes of material every month and it is introducing recycling on international services. The airline also donates excess fresh, non-perishable food items to the OzHarvest school-breakfast program.

Emirates and United Airlines are other airlines that recycle. They have recycling facilities on board that enable them to sort glass, plastic, aluminium, and paper products.

In addition, Iberia is using reusable utensils and has recycling bins attached to its service trolleys and on Etihad flights, the cabin crew collects plastic bottles and cans for recycling.

If not flying an airline that recycles its waste or if you’re unsure if it does, take the waste from your meal that is recyclable with you and recycle it in an appropriate bin once you get inside the airport.

9. Take what you don’t eat with you

Anything left on your tray that you don’t eat, even if it is still fully packaged gets chucked in the bin and sent to landfill. Full from the rest of the meal and not keen on that muffin or cookie right now? Keep it.

Put it in your seat pouch and eat it later on during the flight and if you don’t end up eating it while in the air, slip it into your backpack and take it with you. As long as it is still fully packaged it is fine to go through customs. Getting to your hotel can be tiring, you may need a snack on the way and there is nothing better than realising you have some food stashed on you when hunger hits and you’re nowhere near an eatery or eating.

10. Minimise and offset your air miles

The biggest problem with flying is the carbon dioxide created. At this stage (there are some exciting new developments happening in the air fuel space), this is unavoidable, but there are a few ways to minimise and offset this carbon dioxide.

To minimise the fuel used on your flight:

  • choose a direct flight rather than one with stopovers if possible, as flying directly uses less miles, and

  • pack light as the lighter your luggage and the plane, the less fuel used.

You can offset your air miles through the airline you are flying with by clicking yes to purchase their carbon offsets, or you can offset them using an accredited agency. According to Choice, “offsets that avoid emissions through energy efficiency, or replace fossil fuel based energy with renewable energy are the most effective, with forestry projects ranked last”. So, check what programs your offsets will be funding.

Also, the airline you choose to travel with can also make a difference to your emissions. Some have begun using biofuels, which unlike fossil fuels, can be created sustainably and create less greenhouse gas emissions. This includes Qantas and United Airlines.

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