Airlines recognize the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling cabin waste from their flight operations to reduce their environmental footprint.
Passengers are increasingly worried about the impact of single-use plastics on the marine environment, governments are focusing on minimizing food waste, and airlines are concerned that the regulatory system inhibits their ability to respond to these challenges.
In the absence of smarter regulation, cabin waste volumes could double in the next 10 years. IATA wants to support the simplification and harmonization of cabin waste regulations and promote technical solutions that will reduce industry costs and contribute to the circular economy.
All cabin waste is subject to national waste management controls that limit pollution, but many countries have gone further with their regulations, introducing restrictions on catering waste from international flights to protect their agricultural sector (in respect to animal health). Airline meals are prepared using stringent hygiene and quality control standards,
originally designed for NASA astronauts, but the regulations often lead to the incineration of all cabin waste with limited ability to reuse and recycle.
What IATA is doing
Analysis of waste composition
Because cabin waste is collected and managed by two different contractors (cleaners and caterers), undertaking a holistic cabin waste composition analysis is challenging for airlines. A standard cabin waste audit methodology was developed and tested at London's Heathrow Airport in a pilot study in 2012 and 2013. The study indicated that a typical passenger generated 1.43 kilos of cabin waste (average across both short and long-haul international flights) of which 23% was untouched food and drink and a further 17% comprised of recyclable materials (e.g. plastic bottles and newspapers).
A case for smarter regulation
A major obstacle to airlines' ability to reuse and recycle more cabin waste is the International Catering Waste (ICW) legislation that many governments have adopted. These regulations aim to reduce the risk of transferring animal and plant diseases by requiring ICW to be subject to special treatment.
IATA commissioned a study to understand the risks posed by airline catering waste on animal health. It advocates the adoption of smarter regulation which allows recycling while maintaining animal health controls. Read the summary of International catering waste: A case for smarter regulation (pdf).