July 05, 2010

Less (not zero) Waste Air Travel

Today, I am suffering from the worse jet-lag ever. I wake up around 2 am, my mind starts going and I cannot go back to sleep until the birds start singing. The kids and I arrived at my brother's, in Paris, a few days ago.

Rest assured. I am aware of my carbon impact when flying overseas. And I pray everyday for new carbon neutral ways (offsets are not satisfying enough) to visit my native land and blood relatives. Our weekly Skype sessions help but are not exactly an alternative to the kids language immersion or my mother's hugs and kisses. I live a zero waste lifestyle, I have reduced my meat consumption and car usage to pretty much once a week, I strive to shop local/organic and save water/electricity as much possible, but there is not much I can do about that damn yearly flight! (Besides reducing the frequency and amount of flights...we figured that four of us going there was better than eleven of them coming here).

To make things worse, my trip over was a waste nightmare, and an eye opener at the same time. Every time I fly (about once a year), the transition into the wasteful world is a shock. Travelers stuffing airport recycling (if available at all) or trash cans with water bottles, magazines, fast food containers and wrappers; discarding a full bottle of water at a security checkpoint and buying a brand new one a few minutes later, instants before boarding a flight, where they get yet another one (that's 3 bottles in less than an hour)... Flight attendants opening single portion drinks and pouring them in a new plastic cup every time around, and then coming thru with a trash bag - with recyclables and trash co-mingled. ... it sure is a harsh trip out of my bubble.

On a recent radio interview, I sounded hopeful when asked about our disposable society. My answer was based on the positive changes I see and hear around me, when at home (and that includes you, faithful and supportive readers... you're part of my daily home life :), I can actually see change. I see more people walking around with reusable cups, some readers visiting my deli counter with their jars (I got a report from the cheese guy ;), friends buying milk in glass jars and throwing zero waste birthday parties... But I have to say, British Airways threw all that enthusiasm out the window.

I can hear you say: "Welcome to the real world, Bea". On these uncommon grounds, I feel like a fish lost in the Great Pacific Trash Vortex, where intoxicating waste gets shoved down my throat. Or perhaps is it, that leaving my home where waste is pretty much all figured out, leaves me feeling vulnerable, unprepared, and unarmed elsewhere. Or perhaps I should have taken more notes during last year's trip and done more research before flying to prepare myself.

I brought my reusable and insulated wide mouth bottle (cold and hot drinks), napkin and bamboo utensils on the flight, thinking that they would get me to my brother's waste free, but waste was inevitable.

Live and Learn.

As soon as the kids and I opened the plastic bags (blanket in one, headphones, socks, toothbrush and sleep mask in another) on our seats, and got settled, I found out that my headphones were broken. And since I had looked forward to being stuck on an 11 hour flight with two kids for the non-stop movie selection on individual screens (remember, we don't have TV), I requested headphone replacements... Ugh, what I did not realize is that the new pair of headphones would be again bundled with another pair of socks, a toothbrush and sleep mask...

Later, my insulated Klean Kanteen did not save me from the disposable alcohol either. Yes I was thirsty for something else than water and succumbed to the "free" beer (straight out of the can to save a disposable cup) and wine (straight out of the glass bottle) on the long haul flight. At least, I then thought, the two are easily recyclable and would be given a second life by British Airways.

Or would they? I googled (soon after landing), to put to rest any doubt I had on the question. What I found out is astonishing, in this day and age (or at least for someone living in a bubble) and yet not surprising (considering I had doubts).

In short:
- No airlines currently recycle all of the main types of recyclables: aluminum cans, glass, plastic and paper ... because of airport recycling policies and customs.
-According to Green America Today, United and US airways rank worse on a sustainability scale comparing 11 airlines (US Airways throwing away 1 million plastic cups every 6 hours). BA was not far behind, in 8th place.
-According to a report by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), “The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 58 Boeing 747 airplanes [...] and enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.”

I keep wondering, why are the blankets wrapped? is it because they wrap them after cleaning them. Do they clean them or throw them out? After reading the confessions of a flight attendant, it makes me wonder. If airlines see disposability in a terry washcloth or headphones, they could just as well see it in a synthetic blanket. I remember always using a blanket for as long as I have flown internationally, but I don't remember it always being wrapped. When did it stop being acceptable to receive a naked blanket? (Note to self: Add airline blanket to my "standards revisited" posting).

Here are somethings you can do to minimize your air travel waste:
  • Packing light: The three of us used one medium suitcase for the summer (easy for a minimalist, I took everything in my closet except for 11 winter items), and a small suitcase for presents and items that I'll bring back (last year, I filled it with antique metal bottle carriers to carry my refillable wine, a sweater that I knit with my mom's help, the alum stones that I use as deodorant, a loofah that I bought unpackaged, a discarded sheet that I made into bulk bags, and loads of family recipes).
  • Visiting the library for your reading: Mine is "Gone tomorrow, the hidden life of garbage". It's been on my "To Read" list for months. I calculated that with Scott visiting us halfway during our stay, he could take my book back to the library before the loan expires. You can also use a Read & Return Program.
  • Stopping at the local thrift shop on the way to the airport for pre-owned magazines: I found all June 2010 editions. Thanks to those who remembered to Reuse before Recycle, and donated them.
  • Getting to the security checkpoint with an empty reusable bottle, and once on the other side, asking for a refill at a bar (with a smile).
  • Packing bamboo utensils, and a cloth napkin in your carry-on and refusing the airlines disposable version.

While I wait to hear back from British Airways (and it might take as long as Whole Foods ;) about the whereabouts of my in-flight used and unused meal containers, uneaten food, used blanket, used pillow, used headphones, unused toothbrush/sleep mask kit and unused socks, I plan to be more thoughtful on the way back:
  • Refusing plastic covered items: Giving them back to the flight attendant before I sit down .
  • Bringing personal headphones: Most flights audio systems now have regular headphone jacks.
  • Bringing a wrap to use as a blanket.
  • Packing a reusable stainless straw would also be useful when sipping directly out of a can/bottle to avoid the plastic cup on the plane.
  • Taking recyclables with me to recycle at my destination and filling out this online survey.
Of course, if I also packed a meal, many of my worries would disappear.