Environment & Health HKFP Voices

Thirsty passengers trashing our planet from 37,000 feet

What happened is this. I forgot to carry my refillable bottle with me on a recent long-haul flight. It had been a while since I boarded a plane without my usual refillable sidekick and I found myself reflecting on just how many plastic cups a person goes through on a lengthy flight.

Here is the context for this exercise. Our consumption of bottled water has documented environmental and health consequences: bottled water is often scarcely safer than tap water because it is less regulated, the bottles may contain BPA or other chemicals that leach into water, single-use bottles add volumes to our already gigantic pile of plastic waste, and carting natural resources across distances makes little sense. The Story of Bottled Water (below) offers an engaging synopsis of some of these issues. There are situations in which we have very limited choices and must consume bottled water. But when possible, I eschew bottled water because of the reasons above.

In the spirit of inquiry, let’s look at how much waste our beverage consumption generates in the skies.

First, let’s consider the start of the journey. You arrive at the airport and more often than not, find yourself sitting around that extra hour before your flight. Most of us end up at a Starbucks or Watsons as I did, buying a) a cup of coffee or b) a bottle of water. Thirst + boredom after security check = one cup.

Next, you get on the plane. Long haul flights need plenty of hydration to avoid feeling like a desiccated prune, so when the attendant first rolls the trolley around to offer you a beverage, you find yourself accepting it. Two cups.

bottled water

Photo: Flickr.

In that manner, assuming you drink normal quantities of fluids, you are probably going to rack up five, possibly up to eight cups by the end of your 10-14 hour flight. Tea, coffee, a bloody mary, water, whatever floats your boat.

It doesn’t stop there. When you’re off the plane and through customs, you might buy another beverage unless your journey from the airport to your final destination is going to be brief. We are now at six cups at a minimum – possibly up to eight or ten.

So there we are: upon arrival, the plane disgorges all of us into our destinations and then vomits out the grotesque amounts of waste created in-flight by us all. Some may get recycled, but most plastic waste ends up in landfills.

How can we attempt to assuage this ghastly situation? The simple refillable bottle I try to carry around doesn’t provide a holistic solution. I have had to convince flight attendants to refill my bottle. One recently informed me that she didn’t think it was hygienic and insisted that I accept a plastic cup. When I argued that this was not logical because  nothing touches the passenger’s bottle if filled just as one would fill a cup, she reluctantly agreed. This awkward conversation is not one I want to have every time I want a drink on a flight. Besides, not all airports have conveniently placed refill stations.

So let’s think about this in terms of other potential larger-scale solutions.

Cathay pacific

Cathay Pacific aircraft. Photo: Michael Rehfeldt via Flickr.

What if airlines promoted the use of personal refillable bottles to help customers make a responsible choice? Perhaps each time passengers used their own bottles, they could receive an extra few miles on their trip as an incentive. Perhaps this would actually save money on disposable cups and smaller bottles and tie in nicely with other corporate environmental initiatives by providing a measurable activity. Perhaps travellers would respond well to such initiatives because it would save them money and provide a convenient and appealing alternative. Perhaps airlines could provide branded refillable bottles that passengers could reuse through their travels. Perhaps they could create reminders at the time of booking, to encourage passengers to bring their own bottles and promote this small step toward sustainability. Perhaps they could advocate extra water refill stations outside their check-in gates to allow passengers to refill bottles before boarding.

Quizas, quizas, quizas, as the song goes. The possibilities are abundant, not mutually exclusive, adaptable, measurable, and exciting to consider.

Plenty of airlines do have some recycling related environmental policies in place (United Airlines’ effort to use InCycle recycled cups for instance, though unfortunately the manufacturer has recently mysteriously gone out of business), and for that I am grateful. However, we need more efforts to reduce waste, not just to recycle some of it. The ideas above are not particularly groundbreaking, but do bear revival and concrete exploration to tackle an issue that could be managed better.

Shall we, as travellers, ask for initiatives to help us make better choices as we peregrinate through the skies racking up a significant carbon footprint as it is? Can we, as customers, work together with our service providers, to create better systems? Fellow travellers and those in the airline industry, I would love to hear your thoughts. The myriad issues related to plastic waste are too well documented to ignore the consequences of our millions of sips in the sky.

Thirsty passengers trashing our planet from 37,000 feet