Is sustainability up in the air

10th October 2019

‘We do encourage sustainability wherever possible on this flight, and would like to remind our passengers to recycle appropriately and support our environmental protection efforts.’

The PA rang out and I smiled to myself - that message had made me feel quite less guilty or riddled with flygskam - the Swedish term for shame of flying which has become increasingly common in travel and climate based conversations. A seven hour flight to Boston with a lessened conscience, don’t mind if I do.

A side of plastic with your plastic, madame?

The hours rolled by - and it started. The plastic wrap from the blankets, headphones and pillows were collected in the main trash despite the material being suitable for eco-bricks. Each passenger was given a water bottle without being asked. The wine was delivered in individual plastic bottles per serving while being poured into clear disposable cups, the trays handed out with a dinner containing five separate had plastic wrapped items - not including the plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic. In years gone by this would have zipped over my head unaware, but now after having been introduced to the world of sustainability through the 2019 media storm and joining Studio Republic, it irked me to my core.

The tale of the tomato

Then there came a little salt to the wound: the vegan choice. Though not technically a vegan, I’m not a fan of plane food and hoped that the vegan choice may up my odds considerably of getting a bit of fruit or carrot. Easily pleased, you know.

A nap sponsored the absence of the main meal, but in the morning I opted in. Alas, presented was the premium of vegan breakfasts - a slice of tomato in an awfully sad, firm little white roll. Wrapped in cling film. Really.

I genuinely thought somebody was pulling a prank on me, but after seeing somebody else’s disappointed face while inspecting the little beige square of despair the truth dawned in. I was hardly expecting some fresh avocado salad with fine roasted nuts and brioche, but come on now. Even for plane food this was a league of its own. We’re encouraging meat free days, the UK alone is booming for the rise of veganism and vegetarianism... and this was the celebration of the climate action movement. A stale mini bap with a slice of tomato in the middle.

One bin fits all

When the crew arrived to clear the trash, I already had my recyclable items separated from both food waste (I’m looking at you, tomato roll) and general waste. The crew swept it all in one, despite my proud child-like ‘Look, I separated it all out ready for you!’ presentation. The crew member said it didn’t matter, and in it all went. And that’s from an airline claiming it is sustainable and recycles?

Then for the return flight the following week. The recycling issue, plastics on in-flight meal and the pillows etc were all present in all their glorious abundance. Except this time the cups were doubled up, the food wastage seemed higher, the cans went straight into general waste. I asked the friendly person next to me if this bothered them at all, for them to shrug their shoulders - ‘there is nothing we can do about it,’ Ms 21C said. Isn’t that what we thought only a year and a half ago before Greta Thunberg exploded into the climate action scene to teach us that we can make a difference?

Now I am aware of the hypocrisy people face when discussing sustainability and they’re a frequent flyer or similar. So before anybody points that out, be aware that usually this writer endeavours to use public transport when traveling in other countries, but sometimes the need calls for the flying option and life still happens. That’s why we need to ensure we make active choices to offset these heavier usages - a little bit like moral offsetting, if you will.

A few weeks after I was on a flight to Poland, curious to observe the different airlines sustainability practices on a short haul flight. As expected - the wine was served in individual plastic bottles with double plastic cups, the cans were put into general waste, the ecobrick-able single use plastic slung in too.

Explanation pending

Upon my return, I emailed the first two carriers from each way of the long haul flight and have still to hear anything back. I enquired as to how they were claiming to be sustainable and listed the contradictions seen on a single flight, and have yet to hear a response.

It’s 2019. You can hardly go a day without hearing of a new law, a new protest, a new action fighting to protect our planet. Yet there we are, faced with a problem in the skies - the airline industry is destructive enough, how are they outwardly acting with such little regard for the preventable environmental damage on their conscience?

I’ll update this blog with any potential responses from the airlines, but I'm not going quietly about this. Unlike the person in 21C, I know we can do something about this - and we will. Nobody deserves the sad tomato bap.

What do you think about the plastic problem? Share this blog on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts. Should we be holding airlines accountable for their plastic waste? How do you reduce your impact when flying?