A couple of weeks ago I flew from San Francisco to Denver on Frontier Airlines. Because I’m in my “ecodecade” – ten years I’ve committed to having the biggest net positive impact on the environment – I was looking for anything green to compensate for all the CO2 emitted by the jet fuel.
I felt pretty good about bringing my own reusable water bottle on the plane. Frontier’s business model is to charge separately for everything but the forward motion of the plane – including bottled water and all other beverages. So the choice was pretty easy.
But I was looking for more. When the flight attendant passed by with a bag to collect trash, I asked if the trash would be separated and recycled.
I: Why not?
She: Because there’s not room on the plane for that.
I: But you don’t need any extra room. You have room on the plane for the trash itself. Recycling just means you would separate out the recyclable stuff. Then you’d walk off the plane in Denver and put it in the recycling bins right inside the terminal.
She: Um, we don’t do that.
I: Ok then, I’ll just keep my trash and recycle it myself.
When the passenger behind me started to give the attendant his newspaper, I turned around and said, “I’d be happy to take that off the plane for you. This airline doesn’t recycle.” A bit overboard, perhaps. But I felt like I was making a difference.
When I got off the plane I went to the airline counter and asked why Frontier doesn’t recycle. The attendant nodded with a knowing smile.
“I know. I’m big on recycling too,” she said. “We asked about it at the March meeting, and were told no. But we’re going to keep asking.”
“Would it help if I wrote to the airline?” I asked.
“Absolutely!” she replied.
On the flight back home on Frontier, I asked the flight attendant if I might collect everyone’s trash myself in one of the airlines plastic bags, then sort and recycle at SFO – speaking just a bit loudly so other passengers could hear. Surprisingly, he was not up for letting me do this important work.
The following week, I had to fly to Denver again for work – this time flying United. The CO2 guilt was killing me. Two flights in two weeks!
I felt better after reading the “Eco-skies” page of United’s website, where Recycling and responsibly managing waste is listed as one of United’s sustainability initiatives:
27 million certainly looks like a big number. But how does it compare to the total pounds of recyclable waste generated? Apparently, not well. This report from 2010 ranked United next to last of 11 airlines for on-board recycling programs.
On the United flight, I found not only failure to recycle, but also a bizarre sort of denial about it:
Attendant: Trash, trash. Do you have any trash, miss?
I: Do you recycle?
She: Oh yes. We do recycle.
I: But you’re collecting all the trash in one bag. Are you going to separate it when you get to the back of the plane?
She (hesitates): Oh – THIS trash. No. We’re not recycling THIS trash.
What the ???
Afterwards I wrote a letter to United, too. No response yet.
Of course, there are other ways airlines can be eco-friendly, from reducing carbon emissions to sustainable design elements to green procurement to recycling aircraft parts to greening corporate offices. And oddly, this article from 2013 hails United as the “greenest” airlines in the world. The analysis is complex.
But what to do about on-board recycling, at least, is simple. You, and I, and every person who boards a plane, just needs to ask this one question of every flight attendant: Do you recycle?
Hey, kids! If you’re up for some good-natured, eco-fun, I highly recommend bringing a large garbage bag on your next flight. If there’s no recycling, wander the aisles collecting the can and newspapers yourself. It’s a hilarious prank that will leave a lasting impression on everyone on the flight. Let me know how it goes!