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See Inside September 2009

Airlines and Recycling: The Not-So-Green Skies

New calls for the U.S. airline industry to take recycling seriously



John Wood Getty Images

Even the infrequent flier might have noticed that when the flight attendant comes around collecting passenger detritus, all the empty cans, cups, bottles, newspapers and napkins usually end up in the same garbage bag. The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans every year to build nearly 58 Boeing 747s and enough paper to fill a football field–size hole 230 feet deep—that’s 4,250 tons of aluminum and 72,250 tons of paper. The 30 largest airports in the country, with the help of the airlines, create enough waste to equal the trash produced by cities the size of Miami or Minneapolis.

Unlike other aspects of the travel business, the airline industry has moved at a snail’s pace to get onboard the green revolution. Although hotels, for instance, have plenty of monetary reasons to encourage patrons not to have their towels changed every day, the airline industry has little economic incentive and even less government pressure to go green.

Several factors have discouraged airlines and airports from following the nation’s recycling trends, says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In December 2006 he published a report quantifying the waste from the industry and lambasting it for its lack of initiative toward recycling.

One of the problems is that airports have been reluctant to change their infrastructure to accommodate recyclable materials. Some airlines even separate the recyclables from the trash onboard the airplane, but if the airport is not equipped for recycling, it all goes into the same place. “Airports have been designed without recycling in mind,” Hershkowitz explains. “There are, for example, waste chutes that are all too convenient to dump trash. But there’s no chute for recycling.”

Some airports, however, have made great strides—recycling bins have popped up in terminals in recent years. And some facilities have taken recycling more seriously than others—Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International, Seattle-Tacoma International and Portland International are a few examples. None, however, yet comes close to the national recycling rate of 31 percent of waste.

The lack of a recycling infrastructure at airports has meant that an airline that wants to recycle must take on the expense itself—a difficult choice given the financial straits in which most airlines find themselves today. But part of the problem, as Hershkowitz claims, is that some do not realize the payback. “It costs more money to dump in a landfill than it does to put recyclables on the commodities market and get some money back,” he says. Hershkowitz’s study found that the four airports he observed that had aggressive recycling programs saved at least $100,000 a year. (Seattle-Tacoma led the way with $180,000.)

An approach called commingled recycling may be the easiest way to reduce costs and get more airlines to recycle. In this method, trash and reusable materials do not have to be separated onboard—a machine separates the trash from the reusable material and then separates the different types of recyclables. More waste management firms are offering the service to airlines. As a result, Delta Airlines, which recycled onboard trash in only five cities in 2007, recycled it in 23 cities in 2008. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue are in the process of expanding their commingled recycling efforts, too. Southwest would not say how much money it makes from recycling, but a representative for the airline says the goal is to pay for its waste management through recycling rebates and reduction.

Despite such recent efforts, Hershkowitz doesn’t think the recent efforts go far enough, and he hopes that the Obama administration will install some regulations forcing airlines and airports to take recycling more seriously. “The voluntary system hasn’t worked,” he insists. In January, Hershkowitz met with the Government Accountability Office over the problem and recommended that a law be created requiring that all airports receiving federal funds must begin separating recyclables from trash. If the GAO follows through, it will issue a report this fall recommending the regulation of airport recycling.

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