American, Delta, and Southwest are the three biggest airlines by passenger capacity and have the collective ability to carry almost 700 million travelers. This gives them the ability to make a significant difference in the amount of cabin waste created every year.
Cabin waste is made up of cleaning waste (like newspapers, plastic wrapping, and toiletries) and catering waste (like in-flight food, drinks, and packaging) produced during a flight. It’s difficult to recycle because it’s often subject to strict International Catering Laws that regulate the disposal of items crossing international borders.
“The US Department of Agriculture considers materials from international flights contaminated with meat, dairy and/or produce to be regulated waste, which must be thermally treated to ensure there is no contamination to domestic US agriculture,” Delta explained in its 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report. Keeping recyclable materials separate from regulated waste is an ongoing challenge for the company and one reason why IATA advocates for change from both the regulators and the airlines when tackling this issue.
However, other airlines show that it’s possible to introduce sustainable policies while still adhering to current international regulations. Low-budget European airline RyanAir, ranked fifth largest in the world by passenger capacity, pledged to be plastic free by 2023. The airline’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, announced that “For customers on board, this will mean initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, biodegradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products.”