What a waste

by James Wysong on November 29, 2005

We are fortunate to live in a time of plenty and in a country where starvation is rare. Our food production is at such levels that wastage is normal, and two-thirds of all Americans are deemed overweight. Our government subsidizes farmers to produce surpluses that are often plowed under, and the cycle of waste continues from store to consumer.

There is waste in the airline industry, too. The amount of trash and discarded food that accumulates is staggering. Yes, though it seems the airlines are not feeding you much, they waste as much as they use. The opportunities for recycling are mind-boggling.

Companies claim recycling costs too much. If this is the case, then lawmakers should issue tax incentives for recycling. Make it uneconomical to waste-and-toss and companies will be setting up recycling bins in every corner of the workplace.

As for the airlines, they should initiate programs that will encourage employees not to open consumables until necessary, reuse whatever they can, and take steps toward recycling. I know most flight attendants would be more than happy to comply. Everyone understands that the landfills are full and that our children will inherit our mess.

Only now, when wastage is hitting them in their already-sore bank accounts, are the airlines starting programs to minimize waste. Here are the only two conservation measures that I have personally witnessed, along with some comments about how they will affect passengers.

No water until pushback. Pilots are now under strict instructions to keep the water shut off until the plane leaves the gate. It is estimated that this policy will save up to $500 each trip. The only drawback is if you go to the restroom while still at the gate: The toilet may work, but you won’t be able to wash your hands afterward. I guess the pilots have a clause about coffee, however, because when they find out they can’t get their java right away, water mysteriously appears.

Engine shutdowns. Engines are being shut down more often these days as a fuel-saving measure, so you may find yourself parked on a remote taxiway with the engines shut off during a weather delay. Prepare yourself for a lengthy wait, and know your rights should you want to get off the airplane. Every airline has its own rules, so you will need to do some research about this in advance of your flight.

These two “conservation” measures are really cost-saving measures. I am more concerned about world resources than about company profits. Here, then, are some other conservation measures that I think should be standard operating procedures for all airlines.

1. Recycle aluminum cans as well as discarded newspapers and magazines left aboard the aircraft.

2. Donate unused, shelf-stable foods such as cereal and crackers to food banks for the poor.

3. Use only one engine to taxi.

4. Lower cruising speeds.

5. Use flight simulators rather than real aircraft for pilot training.

6. Serve food on ceramic dishes (rather than plastic and paper) aboard aircraft.

7. Reclaim glycol, the fluid used to de-ice aircraft, for reuse as a runway de-icer or as antifreeze for automobiles.

8. When appropriate, hold aircraft at gates, with the engines shut down, when weather or other problems delay takeoff.

Here are some things that passengers can do to help.

1. Ask about conservation, and support those airlines that are making a big effort. Many airlines claim to be environmentally friendly and say they engage in recycling programs. What they don’t tell you is that they purchase recycled products but don’t complete the recycling triangle by recycling them after they’ve used them. Instead, they throw them away. Ask your flight attendant whether the airline recycles. If she doesn’t know, chances are it doesn’t.

2. Keep your cup. If you are a frequent beverage consumer onboard, hold on to your plastic cup for refills. It may be a small thing, but it’s a start.

3. Look around. Notice how things get wasted at airports and in flight. (Why do I see many recycling containers in European airports, but very few in the States?) Write letters with suggestions. If you threaten to take your business elsewhere, the airline brass may take notice.

Recently, during a long airport delay between flights, I realized that modern airport technology can also be energy-saving. As I walked around the new high-tech airport, I observed technology at its finest — everything from moving walkways to Internet kiosks.

The doors opened automatically as I walked into the restroom. The urinal had a sensor and flushed for me. When I washed my hands, the water turned on and off by itself, as did the hand dryer. Besides ensuring sanitation and ease of use, these innovations save a lot of water and electricity. In the past, open taps and paper towels added up to millions of dollars. The more I looked around me, the more evidence I found of good conservation practice through modern technology. That is a sign for hope.

I left the airport restroom through the automatic doors, having touched nothing through the entire process — well, almost nothing. But if modern technology ever gets to the level of the automatic zipper-upper or the bottom-wiper, that’s where I will draw the line!

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