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Not sure what to do with your amenity kit after an international flight on United? It’s safe to leave it behind.

This week, United pulled together 200 volunteers in its downtown Chicago headquarters to take part in the latest chapter of its Eco-skies program. Through a partnership with Clean the World, a hospitality-focused nonprofit based in Orlando, Florida, United has been taking unused portions of its amenity kits and repacking them as hygiene bags for communities in need. Though the campaign started in 2016, this week’s event at Willis Tower was the airline’s largest volunteer effort to date and the first of 2019. All told, United plans to run a half-dozen other similar volunteer events at hubs around the country this year.

Here’s how it works: after an inbound international flight, crews sweep through premium cabins to pick up unused amenity kits. All unused amenities — whether it’s a tube of chapstick or a full, untouched kit from Sunday Riley — get collected and sent to a Clean the World processing station in Orlando, Las Vegas or Amsterdam where everything is sorted and compartmentalized into separate hoppers. At that point, bulk products by category are sent to volunteer stations with instructions for how the kits should be prepared. Volunteer crews work together to load amenities into new plastic bags and then stock pallets for outbound shipment. From there, new kits get sent directly out to aid centers around the world.

Shawn Seipler, CEO of Clean the World says that hygiene kits repurposed from these events have been deployed around the world from disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Maria to humanitarian work currently underway after recent flooding in the Midwest. Many of the shipments get disbursed through United’s partnership with Good360, another nonprofit focusing on distribution and logistics.

Shawn TK
Shawn Seipler, CEO of Clean the World

This week’s hygiene kits, which come in a simple plastic bag instead of a fancy aluminum or leather-like case, also include other Clean the World amenities such as hand sanitizer and a bar of repurposed hotel soap. Seipler says that while few airlines outside of United have joined Clean the World, over 8,000 hotels have signed up to participate. Bars of soap milled down from those 8,000 properties make up the colorful repurposed soap that Clean the World uses to stock outbound amenity kits.

According to Aaron Stash, Manager, Environmental Strategy and Sustainability, United is currently recycling 100% of its amenity kits from inbound international flights and is working on solutions for flights that depart from the United States. Since 2016, the carrier has been repurposing about 50,000 amenity kits each year, though repacking isn’t done solely by United and its volunteers. Depending on the type of material used in the amenity kit cases, those too are also either recycled (in the case of United’s older aluminum amenity kits) or reused for other initiatives.

This week’s effort by United volunteers created just short of 10,000 hygiene kits, but there’s still much more to do. Right now, amenity kit recycling only accounts for half of United’s international flights as material from outbound routes still can’t be collected. Passengers, too, need to be better educated on the value of leaving a kit behind versus taking it home and throwing it into a pile or under the bathroom sink.

Slowly, however, US airlines are making progress. United’s efforts highlighted this week show that the carrier’s efforts are expanding and appear to be the most comprehensive among legacy carriers, but responsible waste management is playing a bigger role across the entire industry. Both American and Delta are working on amenity kit recycling initiatives of their own.

All photos by the author.

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