by: Joel Makower

The environmental impacts of air travel have come into the spotlight in recent years, due in large part to airlines' significant fuel use and resulting emissions -- and the fact that for many business people, hopscotching from hither to yon represents their biggest climate footprint.

Several airlines, travel agents, and others have attempted to mitigate these impacts through offsets and variations on the theme of "carbon-neutral" travel.

Maybe they should think about "trash-neutral" travel as well.

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that the amount of waste from airlines and airports is significant. One factoid: The U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans each year to build 58 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Coke and Coors cans are just the beginning. Ponder the mountains of discarded newspaper, cardboard, magazines, plastic bottles, office memos, food waste, and other detritus on the last flight you took and you begin to get a picture. They're big numbers: According to NRDC, the airline industry discarded 9,000 tons of plastic in 2004 and enough newspapers and magazines to fill a football field to a depth of more than 230 feet.

Why, after all these years, are airlines still recycling at a rate below that of most households, businesses, and cities? Hasn't anyone told them that waste = inefficiency?

Truth be told, recycling isn't easy for airlines. It requires the coordination and cooperation of foodservice companies, grounds maintenance crews, airports, and flight attendants, among others. And with each airport managed by a different company, and operating under a different set of environmental commitments and regulations, the system represents the ultimate patchwork quilt. Creating consistent operating standards is all but impossible.

Some cities are stepping up to the challenge. I was pleased to see, in the NRDC report, my hometown Oakland International Airport singled out as a leader. Oakland is among a handful of airports that have found it cost-effective to change from a decentralized waste management system to a centralized system. The change was motivated by a need to enhance airfield safety, improve general sanitation, and reduce costs, but it has a significant environmental benefit.

Can customers pressure airlines to do better? Unlikely. Because recycling programs are closely tied to the infrastructure in place at airports, it can be hard for travelers to influence the recycling practices of an airline, says Pete Atkin, principal author of the NRDC report (and now an associate with the sustainability strategy firm GreenOrder, with which I am also affiliated). But the opposite may be possible, Atkin told me recently. "If airlines were to improve their recycling programs, and be vocal about both the environmental and monetary savings achieved, they could create a large ripple effect: If every business traveler came off a flight realizing that they could save their company money by recycling, it could have a huge impact."

It won't be easy. As every flyer knows, airline services have been cut to the bone, and trash on some flights is scarcely removed, let alone recycled. Faced with rising fuel prices, labor issues, cutthroat competition, and pressure to reduce their climate impacts, airlines have far more pressing priorities.

But it's not impossible for airlines to step up to the challenge. In my 1992 book, The E-Factor, I wrote about a small band of American Airline flight attendants that started their own effort to recycle cans, bottles, and other waste from flights. They gradually enlisted all 17,000 or so of their fellow flight attendants, eventually creating a systemwide recycling effort without much help from top management. Over time, the flight attendants were able to amass $200,000 from selling recycled materials, and used the money to purchase a plot of land near the Nashville airport and donate it to The Nature Conservancy to protect an endangered coneflower.

It's sad that 15 years later, such recycling efforts are themselves an endangered species.

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