Transforming onboard waste recycling on aeroplanes

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Image © 2019 LIFE15 ENV/ES/000209 (Iberia Airlines). All rights reserved. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

Cabin waste recycling is a difficult task onboard flights, where space is limited and waste is mixed together. The Zero Cabin Waste project wants to change the model by demonstrating a new waste management approach – from the cabin to the recycling plant.

Air passengers create an average of 1.4kg of waste per flight, which equates to an estimated 9 billion kg worldwide in a year. As such, cabin waste presents a noticeable challenge for airlines and air catering companies.

In Spain, where the project Zero Cabin Waste is based, landfill is the most likely destination for cabin waste like packaging, leftover food, and utensils. The nature of waste collection on aeroplanes, where staff work in a confined space during short intense periods, means that most waste is mixed, putting organic and inorganic leftovers in the same containers.

Onboard trials

The Zero Cabin Waste project team have produced a modified waste collection container and are rolling out it during summer 2019 on all flights by its lead partner Iberia Airlines.

Separating waste onboard is a game changer for catering companies such as Gate Gourmet, another project partner. It means that when a flight lands, ground services can easily process the plastic containers, paper, cardboard and other materials before sending them to recycling facilities.

View from the ground

The LIFE team asked Marina García Aedo from Iberia Airlines about the state of onboard recycling, and what the project has achieved so far.

Airlines currently recycle very little waste, although efforts are being made to change this. What’s the current state of play in the industry?

Cabin waste is one of the main challenges of the industry. As airlines we generate large amounts of waste around the world. To ensure that cabin waste recycling takes place correctly, all the stakeholders involved in the waste management system need to get on board: airlines, catering, cleaning companies, airports. These need to adapt their facilities and operations to successful waste segregation and sustainable management models.

Many airlines are implementing waste segregation programmes, as we are doing in Iberia Airlines. We see how the industry is committed to improving waste management and reducing the environmental impact diverted from cabin waste.

You've recently started producing a new modified container for selective waste collection. How it is being introduced?

In Iberia we have designed a new waste bin which allows us to have a compartmentalised waste trolley to separate waste into two categories. In October of 2018, we started implementing the Zero Cabin Waste project by loading the new waste bins on 20 daily Iberia flights.
Now during the month of July 2019, the Zero Cabin Waste bin is being implemented on all Iberia flights. This will result in over 4 500 tonnes of waste being recycled every year.

In your words, why is recycling cabin waste so difficult?

Mainly, it’s due to the applicable law (known as the SANDACH regulation) and the lack of adaptation from our stakeholders. It’s a challenge to launch a recycling programme onboard, but once implemented, we want to make sure that separated waste is managed correctly to maximise recycling. If we separate waste onboard, but stakeholders’ facilities are not adapted, all the work done during the flight is useless.
It’s also a question of limited space in aircrafts: airlines don’t have as much space as they would like to be able to separate waste easily and effectively. While new waste trolleys and equipment are being developed to make onboard separation easier, airlines and stakeholders need to work together so that the whole system can manage cabin waste sustainably.

What's the most important factor in the success of the project, considering the wide range of partners?

All the companies involved in the management of Iberia’s cabin waste are part of the project. This ensures that the work started onboard is sustained along the whole waste management system.
The goals that we have set for this project are very ambitious, but having such a strong consortium, one which is involved and active during the different phases of the waste management system, will help bring success. We are very excited with the project and with the initial results. During the first five months of the project we have been able to recycle 1 132 kg of waste.

Image © 2019 LIFE15 ENV/ES/000209 (Iberia Airlines). All rights reserved. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

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