In January this year, low-cost European airline Ryanair unveiled its 2018 ‘Always Getting Better’ plan, which forms part of its customer experience improvement strategy, including service, digital, ancillary and environmental developments. What has been the most notable initiative to be included in this year’s proposal? A promise to be plastic free in the next five years.

The airline has vowed to eliminate the use of non-recyclable plastics on its aircraft and at head offices and bases by 2023 in an attempt to become the ‘greenest airline’ as part of the brand’s ongoing makeover. In addition to switching to use biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery and paper packaging on-board its flights, Ryanair plans to make its head offices, bases and operations free from plastic.

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Two months later in March, the airline launched a new environmental policy, which commits to ambitious future targets and builds on achievements to date, including commitments to address climate change, and the priorities and policies which will allow Ryanair to continue to lower its CO2 emissions and noise pollution.

In an attempt to set the standard for other airlines and play its part in addressing climate change, the company prides itself on being Europe’s greenest airline. “Operating the youngest fleet in Europe, high load factors and efficient fuel burn has enabled us to continuously lower our CO2 emissions,” says Ryanair chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs added. “Furthermore, customers can now offset the carbon cost of their flight by making a voluntary donation to a climate charity at the end of the booking process, and we have committed to going plastic free across our operations over the next five years.”

What happens to cabin waste?

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airlines generated 5.2m tonnes of waste in 2016, most of which went to landfill or incineration. If left unchecked, the IATA warns, this figure could double within 15 years. Ryanair’s move towards becoming plastic free by 2023 is therefore welcomed in the industry, and joins a string of other initiatives which taken together suggest the aviation sector is waking up to the problem of waste.

While airlines have been involved in recycling for years, their “progressive attitude to waste must be mirrored by the entire aviation community if recycling efforts are to reach their full potential,” the IATA warned in 2010. But by highlighting a handful of results from individual recycling programmes, the commitment from airlines is evident.

Cathay Pacific, for example, recycled over 33,000kg of aluminium cans, almost 30,000kg of plastic bottles, and more than 22,000kg of plastic cups in 2010. Virgin Atlantic diverted over 550 tonnes of cabin waste from landfill in 2009, and the airline recycles all part of its headsets. And in the US, United Airlines has switched to using compostable paper cups and sends its pillows and blankets to homeless shelters.

Lack of infrastructure hinders progress

Despite these – and other – recycling programmes, progress is slow, and the IATA has warned that airline recycling efforts are being stifled by a lack of suitable infrastructure and outdated regulations. Many airline hubs lack requisite recycling infrastructure to support their environmental programmes, and so most waste ends up in landfill despite best efforts by airlines and airports to recycle.

The Airport Cooperative Research Program was set up in the US to investigate opportunities and actions that airlines and airports can take to improve the recycling of onboard materials. Additionally, the Air Transport Association (ATA) has worked with the US Environmental Protection Agency to develop strategies for overcoming the infrastructure challenge.

“Our airlines’ commitment to environmental stewardship extends to all areas, including recycling,” says ATA vice president of environmental affairs, Nancy Young. “While our members already have extensive recycling programmes, ATA and its members are working closely with airports to address local infrastructure issues to make recycling of onboard materials more available.”

ASDA pledges to ‘use less plastic’

In addition to airlines, supermarkets have long been seen as vital players in the war against plastic and packaging waste; in England, an important step was taken in October 2016 with the introduction of a 5p charge for single use plastic bags.

But, in February this year, supermarket giant Asda went one step further, becoming the first of the ‘big four’ to outline detailed plans on how it will reduce its use of plastic. Asda, which accounts for over 15% of the UK’s supermarket industry, published its ‘Plastic Unwrapped – our pledge to use less and recycle more’ agenda, in which it promises customers that it will reduce the amount of plastic in its own brand packaging by 10% throughout the course of 2018.

The retail giant has additionally committed to: introduce a zero profit reusable coffee cup; remove all single use cups and plastic cutlery from its offices in 2018 and its stores and cafes by the end of 2019; phase out 5p single use bags from its shops by the end of this year; and create the Asda Plastic Ideas Hub, which will offer a £10,000 award for every scaleable, workable idea that helps the supermarket to tackle plastic challenges.

It has also committed to working in partnership with experts in packaging technology at the Leeds Beckett University Retail Institute, as well as ABP (one of Asda’s biggest UK suppliers) on priority projects to develop new alternatives to plastics and use more recyclable materials.

Partnership, collaboration and fresh thinking

In a blog post at the time, president and CEO Roger Burnley wrote: “I want Asda’s customers to know that they can trust us to take the lead on the issues that really matter to them. So we have challenged ourselves to look at what more we can do to reduce the amount of plastic in our business and within our sector as a whole.

“We have an established track record in this area already, having committed to making sure that all our own brand packaging is recyclable by 2025. We have taken steps such as reducing the amount of plastic in our water bottles and removing harmful microbeads from all our own brand cosmetics.”

“However, where we are able to go faster and harder to remove avoidable plastics from our products, we will,” Burnley promised. “Our logic is to remove plastic wherever we can, and where it is required, to make it as recyclable as possible.”

As part of its new plastics pledge, Asda will replace the polystyrene bases in its own brand pizzas to cardboard, removing 178 tonnes of plastic from customers’ homes in the process. It also plans to replace the plastic straws used in its cafes with paper ones; eliminate single use coffee cups and plastic cutlery from its offices; launch a ‘zero profit’ reusable coffee cup; and phase out single use carrier bags, while continuing to donate to charities using profits from the sale of Asda Bags for Life.

Like those in the aviation industry, however, Burnley and Asda recognise that in order to achieve a worthwhile reduction in the volume of plastic waste created every year in the UK, a combined effort is needed. “Tackling our reliance on plastic isn’t something that can be done in isolation,” Burnley concludes. “It needs partnership, collaboration and fresh thinking to create the best solution.”