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low ( not zero ) waste flight : my ordeal

low ( not zero ) waste flight : my ordeal

As every year it comes the time to plan our trip back home to Italy.
We don’t go back home very often, one month every other year, mostly because of the distance ( and the price..cough, cough)

I know, I know..I am aware of my carbon impact when flying and is just a matter of time before they’ll invent a greener option but untill then this is the only way for us to see our families and friends. By living a zero-waste lifestyle at home I like to think I somehow counter-balance my biennial flight to Italy. Besides, move the two of us to Italy rather that thirthy-six relatives to Australia seems a smart move to me.

Since I transitioned to zero waste I only flew once. And let me tell you, it was an ordeal.
I though I had all my ducks in a row, living the zero waste dream in familiar environments I created a routine and stepping out of my bubble straight into the enemy field was like a bucket of ice cold water in the face. I usually have a very positive attitude towards small signs of changes I see around me everyday: collegues coming to work with reusable water bottles, a crowded bulk shop store and even my sister finally switching to zero waste deodorant… But I have to say, my flight with Qantas in November to New York threw all that enthusiasm out the window.

I WAS PREPARED ( or so I thought)

There is no place as wastefull as airports. And this is because “single-use” goes with “travel” . And there is no place as wasteful as the inside of an aircraft. The average passenger generates 1.4 kilograms of waste per flight, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Before my long-haul flight I made some reaserches and I thought I was prepared . I brought on the flight my reusable and insulated wide mouth thermos for drinks, my own loose tea, a napkin, my bamboo cutlery ( metal one won’t go through security) and plenty of snacks in reusable produce bags that I intended to use once in New York to buy food . I researched about waste policies in airports and found that domestic flights can recycle if there is a program in place while international flights must incinerate every single bit of waste they land with for bio-security reasons. I even called Quantas customer service ahead to make sure I could take homemade food with me on the airplane ( turns out you can, but you have to finish it all before going through custom clearance at destination or they will ask you to through it away).
And yet..I generated more waste in one flight than in three months living zero waste on land.
I felt like I was on a mission: test my skills, take notes and do better next time.


As I got to my seat I immediatly handed the plastic wrapped blanket back to the flight attendand ( I got a jumper and big scarf with me) and was surprised to find the headphones only held together by a piece of paper so I decided to use them. Alas, after reading what Simonetti said on Confessions of a flight attendant I should have left them untouched and bring my own entertainment from home.
Why on earth with all the super fancy headphones people buy nowaday and bluethoot technology beign so widespread, airplain headphone have that unique attachemnt you can only find on an aircraft?
Noted for next time. Let’s move on…


I had to refuse I don’t even know how many cups of water, beers, juices and snacks in the span of 28h or so. Only after saying “no” to all the snacks they could offer me the flight attendand ( perhaps worried that I would starve?) offered me an apple that I took…to then realize I could not eat the all thing and could not dispose of it appropriatly ( biohazard, remember?) . My insulated water bottle I refilled for free at a refill station minutes before boarding and thermos saved me from the need of water and hot drink. Do you know that airports water is strickty regulated ? that means is safer to drink from an airport water tap in the toilets that from a plastic water bottle. But most airports now have dedicated dispensers scattered everywhere. Half way through my flight I asked a fligh attendant to refill my thermos with a little hot water so I could enjoy a nice cup of tea ( loose, that I brought from home) waste free.

So far every thing was in check.. untill lunch time.


I had three main meals before arriving at destination and so six in total considering the way back and while doing my reseraches the most widspread opinion on long-haul flights’ food was :

if it is a domestic flight with meal included, bring your own and refuse anything they offer.
if it is international, the number of meals will be set and if your refuse it they will simply throw it away.

So between food waste and plastic waste, better take the meal. Or so I thought.
What is wrapped and with a long expiry, they can reuse and so can be saved ( no guarantee that it is) the meal itself will expire anyway and will thrown away ragardless, no leftovers are taken back to the country of origin.

What you can do for your own peace of mind is to take the waste with you, wash it and put in your bag to dispose of it as you can find a bin but you would need a big bag..I had in total 13 containers of small plastic a several soft plastic that will not be recicled anyway. Exception made for organic waste that will be incinerated for security reasons. Together with your good intentions .

Majority of flights you don’t have the option to select “ No meal” and I don’t like to eat meat of fish when fliyng because I am minimizing my meat consumption and cabin food simply isn’t worth eating, so I pre-selected the vegetarian meal option. Big mistake.
Look at the waste that my vegetarial meals generated and the one from my partner (normal meal):

collage cibo.JPG
He just said no to the cutlery as this is what he was left with. Foil and 1x plastic container

He just said no to the cutlery as this is what he was left with. Foil and 1x plastic container

Mine was all wrapped up and bagged to keep it “safe” from the other meals with a ridiculus amount of plastic and snacks . I tryed to return the untouched snacks to the flight attendant and she said that for hygenic reasons they will just thrown them away . I have then politely offered them to my neighbournes that cheerfully accepted.


Here what I have learnt from my ordeal and some myths to dispel on zero waste air travel :

  • Electronic tickes : if you flight domestic yes, otherwise there is nothing you can do but take the boarding pass they will give you when you board your luggage. Or avoid the lables attached to your boarding bag- if you can, travel with just a carry on.

  • Bring your reusables: all of them. Getting to the security checkpoint with an empty reusable bottle and once on the other side, refill it. Pack bamboo utensils and a cloth napkin in your carry-on and refuse the airlines disposable version.

  • Pack a scarf of a soft warm jumper to avoid blankets.

  • Bring your own food from home : refuse the meal on the plane making sure you tell them why. if everyone refuses they will start exploring low-packaging meals and reusable cutlery. Replacement is not straight forward on-air. Metal is not allowed for safety reasons, ceramic increases weight and therefore co2 emissions. So solve the issue by bringing your own food untill package free alternatives will be created.
    Giving passengers the option of pre-ordered their meals can also help to minimize the waste. There's a lot of items that end up on your plate by default that you literally don't want.

  • Bring your own entertainment : this way you will not have to use the headphone provvided. Audiobooks are the best in my opinion.. they will lull you into sleep as well as a glass of wine ( oh no wait..wines comes in little plastic bottles.. nevermind)

Strong of all my new findings that will hopefully prove helpfull to you as well , I am sure I will do much better on my next flight in June.
As I am writing this post came out a news of a spanish and new zealandese company lauching plastic free domestic flights.
So there is hope guys, there is hope..

What’s your best hack when traveling to keep your waste to the bare minumum? I would love to know!

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