Advice from a Flight Attendant: How to Fly with Less Plastic

By Bao Yen

As a flight attendant, traveling on a plane has somewhat different meaning than simply going on a happy journey like most holidaymakers do. Every flight, I witness a massive amount of waste. Plastic, along with other recyclables, almost always end up in landfills.

For a mid-and-long range flight (over 9-hours flying), at least two drinks and two meals are served. Each passenger in Economy class consumes approximately four plastic cups, if not more. For 777-ER and Airbus aircraft, there are close to 300 seats in Economy cabin. To use a simple calculation, there are estimated over 1,000 plastic cups and 500 water bottles consumed on each flight. The airline I work for has close to 100 mid-and-long range flights inbound and outbound Hong Kong each day.

You may be wondering what happen to those recyclables. The inconvenient truth: most of the recyclables are not recycled due to time, manpower, and space constraints. Recycling is costly and time-consuming, which conflicts with the nature of aviation business that puts speed and efficiency as their top priority.

The plastic trash you leave behind will likely end up in landfills or as the news often indicates, in the stomach of precious ocean mammals. Sad! I can be so depressed doing each and every flight thinking about the poor whales. Nevertheless, we all must do what we can to make a real and profound change.

How can we be a responsible travelers?

1. Bring your own water bottles and tumblers when you travel. There are many trendy, easy-to-carry reusable and collapsible cups available in the market. By bringing your own cup, you can save as many as four cups on a flight that might end up in landfills or in the ocean.

2. Even if you forget about bringing your own bottles, REUSE the ones in the flight. Cabin crew, under a premium service concept, will replace your cup with a new one once you finish off your drink. Save the cup and reuse it. To do more, bring it down and put in the recycle bin yourself.

3. Lastly, SHARE this article and bring a real change in every possible way. Everyone one of us matters in saving our one and only planet and another whale from dying because of plastic pollution.

Bao Yen is a flight attendant and environmentalist from Taiwan. 

Photo: (Reuters/Albert Gea) Plastic trash overflows at Barcelona’s El Prat Airport 

See also: What can we do about plastic pollution and air travel?

Take the pledge to refuse single-use plastic.

Join our global Coalition.

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

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. 

Take the Pledge to Refuse Single-Use Plastic.