The European Commission has proposed new legislation that would ban plastic cutlery, plates, straws, and drink stirrers in an attempt to reduce the harmful effect of plastic in the oceans. Some airline industry officials, however, think the new policy will bring little environmental benefit and prove incongruous with current European rules on international catering waste.
“[Brussels] may want to see changes in the way we do business, but we certainly would like to see them as well,” IATA assistant director for aviation environment and best practices Jon Godson told AIN. The industry would “love to be able to do much more” to reduce plastics onboard and minimize or recycle catering waste," he noted, but European animal health legislation only hampers the effort. The rules, formulated to avoid the international transfer of diseases such as foot and mouth, dictate that airlines treat all catering waste arriving from outside EU borders as high-risk and incinerate it or bury it in deep landfill. Similar rules on international catering waste (ICW) apply in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, and Australia. ICW rules on intra-EU flights are less restrictive, though many regulators take a precautionary approach and insist that airlines incinerate all cabin waste regardless of source.
Airlines stand willing to use biodegradable materials and invest in them, “but if the [European] Commission insists we incinerate all waste, it does not make a difference,” Godson pointed out.
“We need complementary legislation, not conflicting legislation,” he stressed. “If all plastics are banned, then we end up in a situation where we have to return to ceramics and this will have a CO2 impact.” Godson called for a debate with the commission on “what is the trade-off between CO2, heat, energy, and detergent going into wastewater as opposed to a plastic, which at the moment is being incinerated.”
Fabio Gamba, managing director of the new Brussels-based Airline Catering Association, expects the effect of the new rules “will be big.” Airlines and their caterers use plastic onboard flights for its low cost, light weight, and utility, he told AIN. It is too early to put an estimate on the cost, he said, while warning that airlines will pass on any cost associated with replacing plastic with sustainable materials to the passenger. “First we have to see if any and which alternatives are available that are fit for purpose for onboard use in terms of hygiene, resistance to high temperature, and storage on long flights.”
He expects the European Parliament and European Council to approve the proposal and that the directive will come into force in either in 2020 or in 2021. “We are getting the support of the airlines and the passengers, but the move away from single-use plastics in two to three years will be extremely challenging,” he said. Almost 80 percent of all food and drinks served in flight comes in single-use plastic.
Ryanair already has pledged to switch to biodegradable cups, wooden cutlery, and paper packaging onboard by 2023. In the U.S., Alaska Airlines will ban plastic straws and replace single-use, non-recyclable, plastic stir straws and citrus picks with white birch stir sticks and a bamboo alternative for the citrus pick in its airport lounges and on all flights starting July 16.