The aviation industry is often criticized for contributing to global warming through airplane exhaust. But waste of a different kind also has the potential to create environmental problems.
Even before they board, air travelers throw away trash of all sorts â including paper, plastic and food waste â and airports and airlines recycle only a small portion of it.
An estimated 7.5 million pounds of trash is generated every day. While the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, says that 75 percent of that trash is recyclable, it has found that only 20 percent reaches a recycling center.
“It does not make sense to acquire oil from the Middle East or the north slope of Alaska and turn it into a plastic bottle, use it once and throw it away,” said Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist at the council.
The council’s figures are from 2006, but are the most recent. The lack of current data was one concern of the Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International. They persuaded the Transportation Research Board, an adviser to the federal government, last November to determine what prevented airports from embracing recycling since travelers seemed to want it.
Recycling procedures vary by airline and airport. Environmental programs involve many entities: airports, municipalities, private waste companies and federal security agencies. As a result, each of the nation’s 552 commercial airports has its own way of handling waste.
“The issue is very local,” said Nancy Young, the transport association’s vice president of environmental affairs. Continental Airlines has been recycling oil, antifreeze and other aircraft maintenance products for two or three years. Recently it began onboard collection of bottles, aluminum cans and cardboard boxes. Leah Raney, managing director of global environmental affairs for Continental, said it was recycling these items through kitchens it owns at hub airports.
“We had so many employees that wanted to recycle,” Ms. Raney said. “We heard it from customers and from our employees, and that’s why we are determined to set it up.”
Oakland International Airport in California began separating paper, cardboard and bottles from airport trash in 2003. Since adding food scraps to the list in 2004, it handles 455 tons a year, diverting 37 percent of its waste from landfills, said Rosemary Barnes, the airport spokeswoman. The airport has also cut in half the number of trash pickups each month, helped in small part by the Silver Dragon Cafe, a new restaurant tenant that uses compostable food containers.
“I recognize to make a difference, it comes from the top down,” said Lilly Mar-Chee, the restaurant’s owner, who acknowledged it was difficult to decide to spend 10 to 20 percent more for the containers, made from potato starch, while opening a business during the economic downturn. “We are committed to using resources in a sustainable way.”
Even when recycling is available, airport procedures can sometimes make it hard for travelers to use it properly. At Portland International Airport in Oregon, officials discovered that 48,000 to 78,000 recyclable bottles ended up in the trash annually because they had been discarded at security checkpoints.
“The public does a really good job in general, but when we came to the checkpoints there’s all kinds of liquids in the trash,” said Stan Jones, the environmental compliance manager at the airport. The airport installed liquid dumping stations at the checkpoints, allowing travelers to pour out unused liquids and reuse or recycle the bottles. Mr. Jones said liquid collection was an environmental decision with an economic benefit. With more bottles being recycled, trash containers are lighter and fewer custodians are needed to remove them.
“There’s a number of benefits,” he said. “People can empty their bottle and take it through security. The other is we’re getting liquids out of recycling and out of the garbage.”
While a few airports have contacted Portland about following its lead, many more are establishing or refining recycling programs. At Newark Liberty International Airport, all tenants must recycle basic materials, according to Susan M. Baer, director of aviation for the airport’s operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“How you achieve it?” Ms. Baer asked about getting people to think about the environment. “By growing generations of people who want to recycle and making it possible for them to do so.”
This month, Green America, an environmental group, started a campaign to get air travelers to pay attention to how trash is handled and to report what they find at the organization’s Web site.
“We can pressure them into doing more recycling and ramping up their programs,” said Victoria Kreha, coordinator of Green America’s responsible shopper program, who also wrote a report grading airline recycling efforts.
A few passengers take things into their own hands, among them Beth Terry, 44, an accountant from Oakland. When Ms. Terry flies, she brings bamboo eating utensils, a cloth napkin and a glass straw.
“I don’t want to waste another plastic cup or another plastic chip bag,” Ms. Terry said. She blogs about her personal campaign to reduce consumption of plastic at fakeplasticfish.com.
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