What Happens to Uneaten Food Once Your Plane Lands?

Apr 13, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

For the latest travel news, deals and points and miles tips please subscribe to The Points Guy daily email newsletter.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X points on dining and 2x points on travel, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • With Pay Yourself Back℠, your points are worth 25% more during the current offer when you redeem them for statement credits against existing purchases in select, rotating categories
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more.
Regular APR
16.24% - 23.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.