Are You Flying the Eco-Friendly Skies?

By Arlene Karidis

When United Airlines recently replaced its "Fly the Friendly Skies" banners at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, they partnered with Columbia College Chicago and Re:new to upcycle the fabric into durable travel bags, which United sells online. This program is one of many innovative ideas some airlines have devised to better manage their solid waste—and in some cases, capitalize on it.

Many initiatives follow a 2010 report by nonprofit Green America detailing how the major U.S. airlines were doing at recycling waste. At the time, Green America graded most of them with a "D" or "F" and recommended they shoot for a 2015 goal of recycling 70 percent of solid waste, generated in the air. In the same year of the bad report cards, disposal of aircraft waste cost the industry $20 to $26 million. The recyclable waste had an estimated market value of $18 million to $26 million, noted trade organization Airlines for America (A4A).

Related: A flight attendant reports on the ugly truth about airplanes and plastic pollution.

Three years later, A4A partnered with Airports Council International-North America to identify how the industry could better manage waste cost-effectively. After much research, the two organizations released industry guidelines and suggestions—from purchasing projects to facilitate recycling and reduce waste, to suggestions for collecting and sorting in flight to avoid costlier operations on the ground.

There are no figures to show if, since the release of the trade guidelines, any airlines have met Green America's suggested 70 percent recycling goal. Several airlines have adopted system-wide in-flight recycling operations and also recycle on the ground. Some launched 'green teams.' Others have entered interesting partnerships to divert from landfill dumping.

In addition to initiatives like upcycling old banners, United has recycled 27.8 million pounds of aluminum cans, paper and plastic from flights and facilities. American Airlines worked with Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to expand recycling in offices and break rooms and to make recycling bins more accessible to ramp workers and cleaners.

Some airlines are partnering with recyclers to "de-tax" landfills and sometimes generate revenue. They've paired up with solid waste managers to collect and salvage old oil, metals, and aircraft windows, and are upcycling tens of thousands of pounds of life vests, carpet and leather seat covers to lighten the landfill load. In 2014, Delta posted a fairly meaty progress report highlighting a 14 percent reduction in hazardous waste generation since 2013, system-wide. And its in-flight recycling volume increased by 6.8 percent since 2013.

On the downside, nonhazardous waste increased by 27 percent system-wide in that same timeframe. Despite Southwest Airlines' increase in flights—recently adding international travel—it is making headway on the waste management front. Though, like some of the other airlines, Southwest still generates more tons of hazardous waste than it recycles.

While there are no comprehensive figures to reflect how the airline industry at large is doing, they are getting greener for each mile that they fly, said Green America Co-Executive Director Todd Larson. "But the issue," he said, "is as they fly more people, their overall environmental impacts are still high and growing."

This article has been used with permission from Waste Dive.