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The use of sustainable plastics in aviation (II/II): Towards plastic-free airline and airport operations

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By Daniel F. Akrofi, Enoch Opare Mintah

· 7 min read

This article is part two of a series on sustainable plastics in aviation. You can find part one here.

Plastics are used for different purposes in the aviation industry. As espoused in our earlier article, plastics are used by manufacturers to manufacture aircraft and aircraft components to improve aerodynamics and reduce aviation fuel consumption. However, in terms of airline and airport operations, plastics play an equally important role. For instance, packaging aircraft cargo, packaging gadgets such as headphones used by travellers, and improving the hygiene of catering services during flight products. Several retailers operating within the premises of airports around the world also utilize plastics in their stores. Some commentators report that approximately 5-7 million tons of single-use plastics are used by airlines globally per year. With the entire global plastic industry emitting 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, plastic contributes more to climate change (4% of the world’s emissions) according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) than the aviation industry (2 percent). Therefore, tackling climate change in the aviation industry should not be limited to aviation fuels only but must also include addressing plastics to address both issues head-on towards ensuring the realization of the notion of green airports worldwide.

To do so, different actors such as travellers, airline and airport operators, airport authorities, and governments need to play their part and lead the way to sustainability. The ensuing paragraphs offer some thoughts on the way forward.

Action by travellers

In an ideal market economy, demand for services induces their supply and therefore when travellers demand plastic-free flights, airline operators will be forced to provide those services to satisfy the demand of clients. Travellers can therefore choose to fly with airlines that make a conscious choice to reduce their plastic use and by extension their overall environmental impact. This action will demonstrate that people do indeed care about sustainability issues and are prepared to walk the talk which is unfortunately not quite the case in most times. However, environmentalists and activists have a role in creating awareness in collaboration with relevant actors to show that this demand exists.

Action by airline and airport operators

  1. Board of directors’ commitment to sustainability 

Commitment to sustainability issues, and plastics to be specific, in the airline and airport industry is a tone and culture that must be set at the top by the board of directors to drive organizational change. Commitment strategies may include the establishment of sustainability committees both at the board and management levels, with the Chair and CEO as members respectively. Boards can also include and emphasize sustainability expertise as part of their skills matrix and essential requirements for the recruitment, induction, training, and professional development of new and existing directors. This way, there is the collective knowledge and concerted efforts to diagnose and ignite a systemic thinking and decision-making process that fosters bold and ambitious sustainability initiatives and activities.  

  1. Incorporating plastic reduction in airport sustainability master plans

As part of the effort to reduce plastics, airports must be encouraged to develop comprehensive Sustainability Master Plans that incorporate plans to reduce plastics. The master plans must encourage airports to fully integrate sustainability and plastic-related issues into their long-range planning. These master plans should identify plastic sustainability objectives that will foster circularity and reduce the landfilling of plastics from airport operations and their overall environmental impacts. Such plans could include setting up plastic clubs in airports with airlines as members to improve co-learning by sharing experiences from different parts of the world.

  1. Declaration to fly plastic free flights

Although demand drives supply in an ideal market economy, in modern economies, this apt process has been reversed and supply now creates demand. Airline operators must therefore be proactive and provide the option for travellers to choose plastic-free flights towards reducing and in the long run eliminate the use of single-use plastic items which will reduce the quantity of waste airports need to manage. Even though airlines such as Alaska Airlines, Etihad Airways, British Airways, Emirates, Hi Fly have all committed to reducing their use of plastics during flights, more can be done by committing to fly plastic-free flights. 

  1. Setting ambitious goals towards reducing plastics in airports

Airport operators around the world can commit to setting ambitious goals for airlines as well as the airports they run in terms of plastic reduction per year. With the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)  estimating that some 4.5 billion passengers fly annually, air traffic around the world is massive, and therefore setting ambitious goals for stakeholders to reduce plastics will go a long way in setting the agenda. This will ensure that airlines work towards contributing to meeting the plastic reduction goals set by airport operators. Airport operators can also adopt measures such as removing plastics from their food and drink outlets and offering free water (refill stations) in terminals to reduce plastic bottle use. 

Action by airport authorities

  1. Creating synergies in policies for joint action

The International Air Transport Authority (IATA) could lead in synergizing plastic policies to draw out best practices for reducing plastic and improve the management of waste including cabin waste through the work of for instance the Sustainability and Environment Advisory Council (SEAC) and Sustainable Cabin Working Group of the IATA. 

  1. Increasing plastic-free airports 

Airport Authorities in countries can aim at making their airports plastic-free by banning single-use plastics. This means single-use plastics cannot be sold on the premises of such airports. Some Airport Authorities have taken the lead in this regard as the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has already declared 16 of its 90 airports free of single-use plastic products, and is planning to add 34 more airports. 

  1. Adding plastic metrics to ESG scores

In terms of sustainability reporting, airport authorities can mandate airlines to report on plastic usage to track and rate the efforts of airlines in reducing their use of plastics such as funding research into plastic alternatives and its intended outcome and timelines. Airports should also report their plastic footprint in their sustainability reporting to identify and track efforts being taken to reduce plastics through their operations. To do so, airport authorities must update their policies for business’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting to reflect this change to improve transparency and accountability. 

Action by governments            

  1. Improved regulation

Governments could develop policies that seek to improve airline operations including showing sustainability leadership by demonstrating how seriously the country takes issues of mitigating plastic waste. Such regulation could include the application of polluter-pays principles that could increase producer responsibility. This should be done with the involvement of relevant stakeholders such as the IATA (and its groups including the Sustainability and Environment Advisory Council (SEAC) and the Sustainable Cabin Working Group) to harmonize regulations for regulators. 

  1. Incentivisation schemes

Governments can offer incentives such as competitive tax rates, tax relief schemes, and subsidies, joint research funding schemes, and collaboration to encourage growth and investment in plastics alternatives. Offering such incentivization schemes to airlines and airports with plastic reduction or mitigation projects and programmes will not only promote the transition to plastic-free supply chains but will create an enabling environment to foster inter-company research and collaboration.

The journey to sustainable plastic reduction and mitigation towards plastic-free and sustainability-driven airline and airport operations is not a goal too far-fetched. With the recommendations above and other specific practices borne out of the context of the industry’s operations, we can collectively and significantly reduce the negative impact of plastics on our climate.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Daniel F. Akrofi is a Commonwealth scholar and an International Sustainability & Legal consultant. He is a Doctoral researcher in International Law & Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK, and holds an MSc. in Water, Sanitation, and International Development from Cranfield University, UK with a BSc. Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management. His expertise revolves around international law, global sustainability & strategy, global environmental (plastic) governance, circular economy, natural resource management, waste management, and WASH.

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Enoch Opare Mintah is a Ph.D. candidate at Kingston University London and an Associate Lecturer of Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK. His research interest and expertise revolve around ESG disclosures, Sustainability Reporting, Corporate Social Responsibility, Education for Sustainable Development, and Citizenship Education.

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