U.S. Airlines Get Low Grades on Recycling

You’re jammed into your coach seat, struggling to open the over-wrapped “treats” and balancing your beverage without spilling stuff on your newspaper. The flight attendants come down the aisles, collecting  magazines, soda cans, plastic cups, food wrappings,  and…toss it all into one trash bag, never to be sorted or recycled.  This is the scenario for some, but not all, U.S. airlines, according to a recent study by Green America’s ResponsibleShopper.org watchdog website.

The report, “What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry” gave top ratings for in-flight recycling efforts to Delta and Virgin America, though the top “grade” was a B-.  United and US Airways shared the bottom spot, each earning an F. The report ranks the diversity and amount of in-flight waste recycled, along with future in-flight recycling plans, education of employees on recycling programs and “other” inflight sustainability initiatives.

In 2006, the NRDC estimated that airlines were discarding enough aluminum cans each year to build 58 Boeing 747 jets.  It sounds as if some airlines have got the message and others have not. But action does not need to come from a top-down mandate: while American Airlines has only a limited in-flight recycling initiative, the AA flight attendants created an aluminum can recycling program that supports charitable donations. The program is administered by the non-profit Wings Foundation; their website states that the onboard recycling program was started by one flight attendant in 1989, and last year raised $50,000 for charity.

The Green America report calls for broader industry support for recycling and asks airlines to reduce over-packaging and general waste and to set goals and measure their progress on the issue. One interim step  is for airlines to let passengers know that their on-board waste will not be recycled, and encourage people to disembark with their waste and recycle it elsewhere.  It might help if we think of an airplane like going on a camping trip…if you pack it in, you have to pack it out.

Each member of the traveling public can help to make sure that those airlines who have recycling regulations observe them, and let airlines know that their environmental policies and practices are important in our buying decisions.  Green America is urging the flying public to ask their flight attendant what will actually get recycled on each flight and report it using the form here…Green America plans a follow-up report.

For other airline news, see Beth B’s post on the first sustainable jet fuel plant here.
Please follow my tweets on climate change and the environment @leapingotter.

Photo © Jonathan Nightingale via iStockphoto


Chhiv Leng Koeu
Chhiv -7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

SANJA l7 years ago


Linda M.
Linda M7 years ago

thanks for posting this

Linda M.
Linda M7 years ago

i flew out to see my sister last summer and asked the flight attendents if they recycled. she hessitated but said "yes" and i knew she was lying.

Michael G.
Michael G7 years ago


Lenee Lirette
Lenee Lirette7 years ago

this needs fixing pronto. thanks for raising awareness where its needed.

Bee Hive Lady
Fiona O7 years ago

Last October, I had the opportunity to fly to Ireland on Aer Lingus. The attendants showed concern for the environment in everything they did. US airlines have a lot to learn. That is, if they are willing to put the time into doing so.

Theron W.
Theron W.7 years ago

This all really makes me very sad! The fact that its a major airline company who got bailed out, you would think they would do everything possible to help with anything they could. Recycling is one of the easiest things to do, and how about showing some compassion for others in need. I know i will do whatever i can to not fly on American Airlines in the furture!!

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog7 years ago

Good to hear that some are trying, but it's shameful that some airlines are not...I wonder how Aussie airlines would rank?

Robert Taylor
Robbie Taylor7 years ago

THat's good to know