Your Captain Has Illuminated the “Profligate Waste” Sign – Please Throw Something Away

By the time the attendant came by to see to my in-flight comfort, I’d already completed an urgent cost-benefit analysis.  If I really wanted my friends at SouthJetUniBlueWest Airlines to supply me with the three Jack Danielses that reliably equip me to spend time in a multi-ton, airborne tube without screaming my head off, I would also need to accept Jack’s sine-qua-non partner:  the disposable, plastic cup.

(You see, I’d already learned on a previous flight that airlines don’t let you drink directly from the irresistible, miniature (plastic) Jack Daniels bottles.  Not even with those cute, little (plastic) stir straws, which would, like, totally work if they’d only just chill out and let you do it.)

In any event, this was the cost-benefit analysis:

Cost:  yet one more piece of undegradable, ecosystem-strangling, plastic crap.

Benefit:  the best-available distraction from the blood-curdling fact that I happened to be twenty thousand feet above the planet I normally call home.

Decision:  Jack Daniels (because airlines don’t stock decent bourbon) and an immortal plastic tumbler.

So we’d begun our descent, and the flight attendant was coming around to retrieve the disposable, plastic, in-flight service items she’d distributed to meet our temporary, in-flight needs.  And apparently, she noticed my reluctance to toss my (undegradable) plastic tumbler into her (undegradable) plastic bag filled with the other (undegradable) plastic trash that my travel companions and I had generated.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she assured me as she tried to pry the cup from my grip, “we recycle.”  A tide of questions surged past me:

  • What are SouthJetUniBlueWest’s criteria for determining whether the items are recyclable or not?
  • How do they separate the recyclable trash from the unrecyclable trash?
  • Do they opt for service items that are easier to recycle?
  • How do they transport the recyclable items to the recycling facility?
  • How far is the facility from the airport?
  • What sort of vehicle carries the stuff?
  • What percent of the total tonnage of in-flight service items gets recycled?  What percent is their goal?
  • Is their recycling data verified by a third party?
  • Why, oh why, doesn’t SouthJetUniBlueWest stock a decent bourbon?

Now, my wife is a patient woman.  But over the years, she has gently clarified that such questions transform me from the charming man with whom she fell in love into a walking hemorrhoid who risks spending the rest of his life unloved and utterly alone.  Which is to say that I asked nothing, pretended to assume that SouthJetUniBlueWest’s recycling policy was a meaningful way to address the untold tons of in-flight garbage we generate every day, and I tossed my everlasting plastic tumbler into the flight attendant’s equally unperishable plastic bag.

And when the ground reconstituted itself beneath me, I returned home and spent a little time looking into the airline industry’s recycling policy.  A few things I learned:

  • Airline recycling greatly differs from one company to the next.
  • What the airlines say they recycle does not always correspond with what they actually recycle.
  • Each of the nation’s 552 commercial airports has its own method of handling waste, and each makes its own claims of how comprehensive its recycling programs are.
  • Existing airport and airline recycling programs were implemented largely after the industry’s employees and customers demanded them.

That last fact offers today’s glimmer of hope (and call to action).  The airline industry will only do better if we force it to.

Which is where Green America comes in.  Green America is a nonprofit that creatively uses the marketplace to address today’s big-picture problems, and it has started a campaign to push the airline industry to address its monumental waste.

Here’s how you can take part:  on your next flight, ask your flight attendants what they plan to recycle.  Then share their responses on Green America’s website.  It’s a quick and easy way to push the industry in the right direction.

And while you’re poking around your favorite interweb tubes, check out this recent NY Times article on this issue.

Bottom line:  recycling doesn’t magically repair the devastating social and environmental problems caused by our unquenchable consumption.  And it’s even less effective when we don’t actually do it.

(Now who’s going to do something about the horrific abominations that the air travel industry has the gall to pass off as food?)