What Happens to Uneaten Food Once Your Plane Lands?

Apr 13, 2019

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Sustainability was a hot topic at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last week.

TPG sat down with Fabio Gamba, the managing director of the Airline Catering Association, the leading industry body representing the different stages of airline food and beverage preparation, from offsite production to being served to you at your seat, to find out.

We asked him what happens after you finish your meal and the crew takes your tray away? Where do the cutlery and plates (or trays) go? If you don’t touch your dessert, is it recycled?

The answers may surprise you.

Aviation is highly regulated with some of the strictest standards of any industry, Gamba said. Because of this, all food served on a commercial flight is within a so-called “closed-loop system”, where each step is tightly controlled from start to finish with no outside influences or variables.

This is the opposite to, say, street-food vendors that might end up producing slightly different versions of their food each day due to variables like location, weather, demand and staffing levels.

The same precision that is applied to the food preparation also applies to the waste and disposal at the end of each flight. The Airline Catering Association says some airlines do split waste between items that can be recycled and those that cannot, and that this is usually only done on board.

(Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

So when a crew member wheels a trolley through the aisle to collect waste following a service, they may have two or more separate compartments to split waste between recyclables and non-recyclables. But if the crew doesn’t perform this step on board, it is unlikely that someone else will once the flight lands.

You may have also seen crews secure food trolleys with cable ties at the end of the flight. This is part of that closed-loop system, to indicate that no one has tampered with the trolley when it leaves the plane.

But what happens then? You might hope that the contents are taken away and carefully sorted, with plates and metal cutlery being washed and reused, plastics recycled, and uneaten food perhaps given to charity.

Unfortunately, the ACA admitted that while metal cutlery, glasses and crockery such as those used in premium cabins are washed and reused, the rest of the contents of the trolley, especially after international flights, are usually incinerated as soon as possible. This includes completely untouched food and empty wine bottles, which could be recycled.

Domestic flights and those with nonperishable buy-on-board trolleys, such as the ones you’d find on low-cost carriers, can and do reuse the same food and drinks for subsequent flights.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.

One airline that is leading the push towards sustainability is Qantas, which has set an ambitious target of reducing its general waste by 75% by the end of 2021, which they say is the highest target of any major airline, globally. Qantas told TPG that on all domestic flights they already separate as many recyclable items like wine bottles, plastic bottles, cups and cans as possible, and will also remove more than 100 million single-use plastic items from flights and lounges by the end of 2020.

Qantas also donates uneaten perishable food to charities when its domestic flights land. The airline said it would like to do more on international flights but they are currently legally required to dispose of many materials permanently.

When it comes to most airlines and airport waste operators though, the ACA says the industry could do a lot more to improve the recycling efforts, noting that strict regulations regarding both security and food safety currently make this difficult and expensive.

Gamba is campaigning the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to establish a working group to take action to improve airline-catering sustainability while still operating within the strict confines of safety regulations.

TPG reached out to IATA regarding any action being taken on catering sustainability but they did not respond by the time of publication.

Feature Image by AFP/Getty Image.

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