What can we do about plastic pollution and air travel?

By Nicolas Delaunay

If you follow Plastic Pollution Coalition, you are most likely unhappy about how plastic is taking over our parks, streets, beaches, and oceans, but have you ever been annoyed by how much single-use plastic is used in commercial air travel? Have you ever found yourself silently cursing while battling to find the slightest bit of space available on your tray after having torn all the plastic wrapping of off everything from your individual tooth pick to your single bread loaf, before you can eat your meal? And what happens to all that plastic?

This curiosity led me to read Emirates airline’s latest Environmental Report on a weekend. Here it is, all you need to know about Emirates’ Resource Management. I will summarize: it’s pretty bad. Not only plastic, but Emirates’ electricity, water, and fuel consumption, all on a 9 to 27 percent increase year-on-year. Hang on: no year-on-year comparisons for materials recycled? You win, Emirates: here goes my “reading-your-report” time encroaching more and more on my weekend time, now searching for data from your past Environmental Reports (here and here).

The number of "recyclables collected" decreased by 29 percent from 2013-14 to 2014-15. And how much plastic was actually recycled? We know that less than 8 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S., and the number is even smaller worldwide. 

Plastic-wrapped food on an Emirates flight. Photo by Nicolas Delaunay. 

Plastic-wrapped food on an Emirates flight. Photo by Nicolas Delaunay. 

Mind you, these data, though alarmingly bad, only account for Emirates’ Dubai airports and headquarters (a footnote in the 2015-16 report tells us they exclude the data from the many thousands of staff accommodations, and they stopped this for no apparent reason… we are left to imagine why. By the way, I do commend the great paperless efforts of Emirates’ Corporate Psychology department and Employee Services Centre at their headquarters (taking up a full page of the report) but what about cabin waste management?

In a nutshell: “it’s … complicated. So, let’s not go there. And if you must blame someone, blame the poor regulatory framework or recycling facilities at destination, not us.” Okay. So, do you mean to tell us, Emirates, that when you fly a plane to Stockholm (where only 1 percent of rubbish ends up in landfill) the waste management environment is so poor that you can’t tackle the problem?

I’m speaking for all those who don’t have a voice: starting with my two children who will not battle plastic while eating on-air but while swimming in oceans filled with as much plastic as fish by 2050. And the millions of fishes, marine mammals, birds killed by plastic every year. And all of us, humans, flying or not, but seeing our natural environment deteriorating.

So I wrote to Tim Clark, Emirates CEO. By registered mail (not finding his email address and sorry to upset Emirates’ paperless efforts). Of course, no response. I am just one of millions of passengers. Still, I am one voice from their most important stakeholder: society. I'm speaking for all those who don’t have a voice: starting with my two children who will not battle plastic while eating on-air but while swimming in oceans filled with as much plastic as fish by 2050. And the millions of fish, marine mammals, and birds killed by plastic every year. And all of us, humans, flying or not, but seeing our natural environment deteriorating.

Of course, Emirates, you are only a tiny piece of the problem. This is not a personal vendetta against you. It could have been any airline, any big corporation more interested in the act of publishing an environmental report than tackling the issues they have a huge responsibility for, no matter how complex.

This is also about us--the public--the ones giving businesses the license to extract and consume large amounts of resources with a defined environmental impact and to make a profit from it in order to deliver a service or product to the public.

The biggest driver for inaction is to have a public that doesn’t use its voice to keep these organizations accountable. This is why NGOs like Plastic Pollution Coalition, social businesses, and anyone taking the smallest of actions does make a difference: in making us better informed, motivated, and empowered. Today, we must do our best to “refuse single-use plastic” and one day, in a not too distant future, I hope to enjoy a cabin tray filled with as much local produce as possible and… zero plastic!

Nicolas Delaunay works for an international organization tackling water security and is a father, concerned about passing a sustainable (and plastic-free) planet to his two children and generations to come.

For easy plastic-free travel tips, watch the video: Plastic Pollution Travel Solutions below.