The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released a report on the use and impacts of single-use plastic products and packaging in the airline industry.

Plastic is widely used in aviation due to its strength, lightness and ability to meet safety and security regulations.

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But the airline sector faces challenges associated with improved cabin waste performance and the need for sustainable alternatives.

Technical and operational obstacles and the lack of harmonised and risk-based regulations present a significant barrier to improving recycling and the circularity of waste management.

The absence of smart regulation continues to constrain airlines’ efforts to improve the sustainability of cabin operations.

The report recommends collaboration across the airline value chain to enable the adoption of circular economy principles.

Specific recommendations for airlines are:

  • To reduce waste at source by reviewing standards and procedures through the lens of waste reduction and reuse, and professionally assess the need for single-use plastic.
  • To set clear targets for elimination, measurement and tracking implementation, and disclose progress.
  • To introduce reusable items as a strategy to drive circularity. This requires logistical changes that incorporate a closed-loop service, including the impact of potential added weight of reusables on aircraft on fuel burn and carbon emissions.
  • To improve waste management and recovery by facilitating onboard and ground waste segregation, and undertake waste composition audits for passenger and cargo operations.

The IATA passenger insights survey conducted in November 2023 showed that more than three-quarters of passengers would feel better about flying if it did not involve any single-use plastics, and that they would be happy to support fewer food and beverage options so that airlines could achieve this.

Airlines such as Ethiad Airways and Air New Zealand have previously worked to eliminate single-use plastic packaging from their operations.

IATA senior vice-president of sustainability and chief economist Marie Owens Thompson commented: “All participants in the aviation sector can develop, adapt and implement the solutions best suited to an aircraft’s unique environment.”