The Plastic Perils of Airplane Travel

Flying over Greenland

Flying over Greenland

On the Flight home from Iceland

On the flight home from Iceland

One of my life’s greatest joys is travel. I love road trips, getting in the car and leaving familiar paths and buildings behind, suddenly finding myself on that open road that quiets miles beyond each city. What I really love, though, is travel that takes me further—to other states and countries and time zones.

Most of this travel involves airplanes.

Since adopting my plastic restriction, air travel has sharpened in my focus. I’ve long heard that flying in an airplane is really environmentally unfriendly, but until this year, I really only considered the CO2 emission problem of it. I didn’t consider the plastic factor.

In the past two months, I traveled by plane to both San Francisco for a friend’s Bachelorette party, and to Iceland for a long-dreamed-of vacation in the land of fire and ice. Truly, if you want to see some of nature’s most strange and awesome natural beauties (like glaciers sitting atop volcanos), you should go to Iceland. But that’s for another blog.

Both of these trips involved flights that were each more than four hours in duration. I realized, when I started to get really hungry on these long hauls, that I’m used to short flights back home to Colorado, flights that don’t offer snacks and sometimes don’t even offer free beverages (I’m looking at you, Frontier). I usually skip the $10 snack and even the complimentary drink because I’m trying to sleep or obsessively playing Candy Crush. Hence, I haven’t paid much attention to the amount of plastic lurking in the beverage cart.

On my longer flights this summer, though, I broke down and got both food and beverage, even though I knew they would probably come in a wealth of packaging, and I was stunned at the amount I encountered.

On the flight to San Fran, I ordered a steak sandwich, thinking it might come wrapped in paper or foil. It did come in a bag that was half paper, but it was also half plastic. The sandwich was actually surprisingly delicious—well done, United!—but I wondered as I chewed and stared at the plastic I’d just purchased why the airline couldn’t use foil. Foil would still keep the sandwich sealed for heating, and foil can be 100% recycled, something airlines could promote to show customers their efforts to be sustainable.

photo 2But this small accumulation of plastic was miniscule compared to what I encountered on my flights to and from Iceland.

I do appreciate that airlines have to make an effort to make passengers comfortable, especially on overnight flights. It’s very nice to have a pillow, a blanket, and as a nice added touch, Delta provided Iceland-bound passengers with a “Sleep Kit” that included earplugs and an eye-mask to block out the fierce neon light of the cabin. I used all of these items to help me (try) to sleep, but all of them, except for the pillow, were enclosed in plastic.

What I find strange is that passengers don’t balk at using a pillow that may have been used by someone before them, one that is “unprotected” and unsealed, but we might feel uncomfortable if we were handed an unwrapped blanket. Or would we? I watched row after row of people on my flight hungrily tear open the plastic around their blankets, and I did the same. With the great demand for a blanket, I couldn’t help but wonder if the plastic was in any way necessary. Surely we could make a collective move to end the saran-sealing of blankets? Surely we’d use the blankets anyway, just as we do the pillows?

The area where I saw the most extreme plastic escalation, though, was at mealtime. On the flight back to Chicago from Reykjavik, passengers were given an over-flowing breakfast tray with a feast that might satisfy a blue whale. Included in this bounty was a huge baguette egg sandwich, a salad with vinagrette dressing on the side, two dinner rolls, butter, cheese and crackers, and cookies. Halfway through the sandwich, I was full.

IMG_1605 IMG_1609

Every single piece of food (including the dinner rolls) and every condiment but the butter, came in a separate plastic container. I actually laughed out loud when I stacked the plastic bounty up on Evan’s tray table to take a picture. Is this really necessary? Can’t we do better? Again, I wondered why the sandwich couldn’t just be handed out in foil or paper—it was just a cold egg sandwich. And the quantity of food—do we need those epic meals on planes? Are any of us expecting that much mediocre food?

Arriving back at O’Hare, I continued contemplating the airline-plastic relationship. Even airports consume plastic alarmingly. I thought about the hundreds of half-drunk bottles of water thrown out before security, the stacks of plastic baggies distributed for compiling three-ounce liquids. The toilets at O’Hare, too, have seats with a rotating plastic sleeve. There’s so much plastic at the airport that is, literally, flushed.

photo 1It’s true that our first environmental concern with aviation is trying to dream up ways to slash carbon emissions. A senior reporter from Ecologist magazine says it powerfully, that airlines “[provide] the biggest easily avoidable source of greenhouse gas emissions in most Western lives” (Anslow 31).

I don’t want to gloss over the importance of this fact, the dire need for energy efficiency with flying. I have to ask myself, though, if airlines continue to seek ways to cut costs and fill every available seat, doesn’t it make sense for them to try to promote sustainability in a variety of areas? Aside from the benefit to our planet, it seems like a good move for their bottom lines.


Anslow, Mark. “CAN FLYING EVER BE GREEN? (Cover Story).” Ecologist 38.6 (2008): 30-36. Environment Complete. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

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