How to Have a Low-waste Flight

Flying is often the biggest contributor to many of our personal carbon footprints. About 2.4% of global CO2 emissions are from the aviation industry, which may not sound as much as you might expect. However, including the gases and water vapour trails aircraft produce means flights are responsible for around 5% of global warming.

The obvious solution is to simply not fly to eliminate these carbon emissions. That’s not realistic for many people who fly for work, to visit friends and family, and to enjoy a well-deserved holiday somewhere warmer than the UK. Instead, more of us aim to offset the carbon emissions from flying in other ways.

Unless you’re an engineer working on fuel efficiency improvements for aircraft, the best way you can have a positive environmental impact is by thinking about how you fly. It’s not just the aeroplane that contributes to carbon footprints when flying. Use the following expert tips to have a low-waste flight the next time you take to the skies.

aeroplane flying through the sky.

Prepare for your flight

Reducing waste when flying starts well before you get on board the aeroplane. With a little bit of preparation, you can eliminate and minimise small amounts of waste for your journey. These are a few easy ways to prepare for a low-waste flight:

  • Download your boarding pass – save paper by downloading your boarding pass onto your smartphone. Most airlines have their own apps, and you can save the boarding pass to your phone for use offline (or take a screenshot to be safe). Check this is fine, as some airlines and airports do require you to print your boarding pass.
  • Buy a reusable transparent toiletry bag – save plastic and stress with a reusable clear toiletry bag. Most of the thin plastic zip-lock bags at airports for your liquids are used once and then binned, often going to landfill or being incinerated. Buy a reusable transparent plastic toiletry bag that you can pack at home, so you’re prepared, and you can use it for multiple flights. It’s a great way to reduce plastic waste.
  • Purchase a sustainable suitcase – get a suitcase or travel bag that’s built to last and ideally one made from recycled materials. It won’t completely offset the carbon footprint of your flight, but it goes a little way.
  • Create a zero-waste flight kit – prepare for the airport and your flight by putting together a zero-waste kit. Pack an empty reusable water bottle to fill up at a water fountain in the airport to eliminate buying a plastic water bottle. Take a travel mug and ask for any hot drinks to be poured into it rather than being handed a disposable coffee cup. Cloth handkerchiefs and napkins, reusable plastic cutlery, and low-waste toiletries like bars of soap and shampoo and a bamboo toothbrush are other sustainable ideas.
  • Pack some snacks – reduce the temptation to buy packaged food and drinks at the airport or on your flight by making some sandwiches, snacks, and sweet treats at home. Wrap them in foil that could be recycled or pack them in reusable Tupperware or old margarine tubs that you’ll reuse. You might find them handy for storage when you’re away too.
suitcase in an airport.

Getting to the airport

Think about how you’ll get to the airport. Driving is quick and convenient when you’ve got some big bags and suitcases, but it also adds to your carbon footprint. If you’re only going away for a long weekend or just have carry-on baggage, catching a train is much more efficient.

In some cases, taking the train can reduce your carbon footprint by up to 80% compared to driving. Plus, you don’t have to pay for expensive parking at the airport. Using airport bus services is also more environmentally friendly and cheaper than driving yourself as the carbon footprint is spread among more people.

At the airport

Before boarding your flight you’ll likely have a couple of hours to kill in the airport (assuming you arrive early enough). Sitting around with little to do is when temptations that create waste can arise. Follow these steps to avoid doing anything that results in avoidable waste:

  • Avoid duty-free – lots of items sold in airport duty-free shops come in tamper-proof plastic bags. This is to protect them but creates additional plastic packaging waste that you wouldn’t get in most other shops. Resist the temptation to save a couple of quid and walk fast past duty-free.
  • Eat and drink in – forgot your sandwiches? When you’ve got time it’s best to eat in at one of the restaurants, cafes, or fast food joints in an airport rather than buying food for the plane. This avoids excess packaging waste from snacks and sandwiches you’ll throw away on the flight. Having a pint or soft drink in one of the bars also eliminates glass or plastic waste as it should be served in a glass that’s washed and reused. Sustainable and refreshing!
  • Refill water bottles – all airports should have free water fountains. Rather than buying bottled water take an empty reusable bottle with you and fill it up before you board. You can’t take full bottles through security but should be fine to bring along an empty one.
  • Washroom etiquette – use hand dryers rather than paper towels when drying your hands in airport bathrooms.
  • Use recycling bins – if your stomach won’t stop rumbling and you must buy some packaged food or drink items in the airport at least dispose of them responsibly. There should be recycling bins in the airport where you can easily recycle empty drinks cans, cardboard packaging, and bits of paper.
people eating at an airport cafe.

On the flight

The Aviation Sustainability Forum (ASF) Audits estimates that flying produces 3,600,000 tonnes of cabin and catering waste each year. This includes everything from leftover food scraps, drinks cans and bottles, snack wrappers, and other bits of packaging. Unfortunately, it often all gets thrown away together and not recycled after landing.

The easiest way to avoid waste on a flight is to simply not buy anything onboard. Bring your own food and drink where possible and take away any recyclable rubbish, such as plastic bottles and empty drink cans. You can put them in a recycling bin at the airport your hotel, or when you get home.

Explore more ways to reduce waste with expert guides

Don’t chuck them in the bin bags the flight attendants bring down the aisle unless there’s a separate recycling bag. Work to improve cabin recycling options is ongoing, so hopefully soon all the recyclable rubbish produced on flights will be disposed of sustainably. In the meantime, avoid using these bin bags.

For long-haul flights that offer headphones, you should take your own. This is an easy way to reduce electronics waste, as otherwise the ones provided by the airline get binned after landing. And are you really going to use the cheap headphones provided by the airline again?

free bins icon.

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