Save Plastics, Save Money - the Airline Catering Challenge

by Jan Uphues
Meal served on board of airplane
Meal served on board of airplane

I just don’t like to drink tomato juice on a plane. Maybe because I don’t like tomato juice at all. In this regard, I’m obviously outnumbered, as tomato juice is the shining star among non-alcoholic flight beverages. Why? Maybe I'll come back to that later, tomato juice was just the hook to get your attention. What happens to the empty cup once it’s returned to the cabin crew? What happens to the uneaten leftover food? What happens to hot meals that are not eaten at all – the ones that are loaded but not consumed? The answer is always the same: it’s all thrown away. As if flying itself did not consume enough resources and energy, huge amounts of waste accumulate from airline catering, thousands of tons every day worldwide. Sure, the airlines have taken a few steps in the right direction. Catering meals have become smaller over the years and using pre-order options allows the aircraft to be loaded more accurately. Free drinks are a thing of the past at many airlines, so the loading of beverages has also been reduced.

Millions of tons of waste

But still, there’s a long way to go and a large area for improvement. Just think of this one figure: 5.7 million tons. This is about the amount of airline catering garbage by passengers per year according to IATA. This number dates back to 2017, and with global passenger numbers increasing every year, it's sure to be higher today. It’s time to get more serious about reducing garbage on aircraft. Just as plastic waste is one of our big global environmental issues, it is also a big issue in the aviation industry.

Nearly all of the waste, which includes partially eaten food, single-use plastics and mini liquor bottles — as well as inevitable things like toilet waste — is incinerated or left in landfills. In addition to the environmental issues, there is a significant cost burden that comes with disposing of so much waste. Not only does procurement and logistics cost money, but cleaning up and disposal costs money as well. IATA estimates that disposal costs for airlines alone add up to $700 million per year.

To save costs by reducing waste, there are always challenges to be tackled. In everyday flight operations, there’s often a lack of awareness, it’s simply not priority level A. All existing processes of waste disposal are done incidentally and integrated in the daily flight processes without thinking much further. Why? It’s a tight business; the margins are already small enough. It’s useless to pay too much effort in order to keep a good cost-benefit ratio. Additionally, there are the complex relationships between the airlines and their respective stakeholders, such as manufacturers, airline caterers, airports, cleaning staff and waste management. The airlines don’t do the waste disposal themselves, but hire external service providers instead. The inevitable consequence: the more stakeholders there are involved, the more complex the process gets. Complexity is a cost driver.

Measurements of Airline Catering

However, there’s still a lot of potential to reduce the waste amount. In 2012 and 2013, a standard cabin waste audit methodology was developed and tested at London's Heathrow Airport in a pilot study to analyze the composition of waste. The study indicated that a typical passenger generated 1.43 kilos of cabin waste of which 23% was untouched food and drink. A further 17% comprised of recyclable materials like plastic bottles and newspapers. This means – theoretically – that 40% of the waste would be recyclable or reusable. One major obstacle here is the International Catering Waste (ICW) legislation that many governments have adopted. These regulations aim to reduce the risk of transferring animal and plant diseases to protect the native plant and animal life of their region. Now that’s what I call a classical conflict of objectives!

But no matter how much waste will be recycled or reused, the starting point of reducing waste is long before the flight. It’s not only the airline’s task, many shareholders can make their contribution, and waste reduction ideally is a process that should be adopted over the entire catering supply chain. Airlines are looking into managing their resources more efficiently and they need airline caterers to be a part of the process. By providing accurate information about consumptions and stocks in useful timeframes and exerting far better control over airline resources under their management – from trolleys, spoons and toothpicks to wine and other high value items. Airline caterers can make a huge difference in decreasing the environmental impact while securing millions of dollars of savings for the airlines and their catering.

Besides these great lines, there are lots of single measurements of airlines that cater to reducing waste. For example, American Airlines (AA) announced in July 2018 that it will remove straws and stirrers in both its lounges and flights, replacing them with biodegradable, eco-friendly straws and wood stirrers, along with beginning to transition to more sustainable cutlery in its lounges. According to AA, the swaps will eliminate more than 71,000 pounds of plastic annually. Delta Airlines announced similar news in October 2018. It’s removing stir sticks, wrappers, utensils and straws from its aircraft and Delta Sky Clubs. The company said it expects to eliminate more than 300,000 pounds in plastic waste a year. Just think, you not only use a cup, but also a stir stick and maybe a straw to prepare and drink your perfect spicy tomato juice snack.

Tomato Juice is here to stay

Fun fact: the ultimate aviation beverage is so popular United Airlines even had to reverse their plan to remove it from flights after outrage from customers. Here’s why people love it so: Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute found out on behalf of Lufthansa that the passengers order the juice because it’s as nutritious as a meal. In addition, the aroma chemists found altered pressure in the aircraft cabin affects the taste cells, which respond weaker to stimuli such as sweet and salty. Many beverages just taste bland. Tomato juice is fruity and fresh, with salt and pepper, even spicy. By the way, since this research, Lufthansa’s airline catering is salting and peppering all food more intensively.

Do you love spicy tomato juice? Do you eat up your entire meal on a long-haul flight? Do you pre-order your favorites? Did you have total airline catering fails so far? Tell us, we’re curious!

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About the author

  • Jan Uphues

    Jan Uphues started working as Marketing Manager in INFORM’s Aviation Division in 2018. He particularly enjoys the “Max Thrust!” moment on the runway.

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