Carbon-heavy airlines all over the world realise their eco-conscious passengers expect them to reduce their waste and are hastily doing away with single-use plastics in favour of reusable or recyclable alternatives. The Royal New Zealand Air Force is leading the charge towards sustainability, writes Jane Phare.
Air Force flight steward Corporal Hayley Pitman knows that by its very nature the organisation she works for has a heavy carbon footprint. But, says Pitman, every little bit helps.
Aged 24, she's of the generation that's acutely conscious of the need to reduce landfill, recycle and reduce carbon emissions if the planet is to survive. So she's a devoted disciple of the Defence Force's sustainability policy that is gradually being rolled out, from the moment she arrives at Whenuapai Airbase on her bike to the moment she rides home again.
On board the Air Force Boeing 757s which is her workplace, it's a changed world from when she signed up six years ago. Gone is most of the plastic. Food is wrapped in tin foil which is recycled, and plastic cutlery has gradually been replaced with washable stainless steel cutlery. Troops use bamboo coffee stirrers, biodegradable paper cups and eat off paper plates, all helping reduce fuel load.
Only VIPS like the Prime Minister and royalty get the real deal. Jacinda Ardern, Prince William and Kate, Prince Harry and Meghan, and Prince Charles and Camilla got the silver service, eating off proper crockery and drinking out of real glasses during their New Zealand tours of duty. So did the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he visited New Zealand earlier this year. Everything is washed and reused.
More recently, a bio-security arrangement with the Ministry for Primary Industries means the Air Force can now bring clean plastic bottles and aluminium cans back into the country for recycling after international flights. That move alone has more than halved the rubbish that needs to be double-bagged and burned at the end of each flight.
With 1400 people at Whenuapai, base commander Group Captain Andy Scott is aware of the large carbon footprint of this "mini town" charged with transporting heavy equipment and hundreds of Army, Navy and Air Force staff around the country and overseas.
"We've got our own fire service, our own police force, catering people, a logistic company," Scott said. He wants to see all the sectors become more sustainable.
"The wonderful thing about the military is if you tell someone to do something they have to do it."
His aim, with the help of the base's sustainability committee headed by Warrant Officer Carol Voshaar, is to drive a culture change across the base so that he doesn't have to give those orders.
The message is starting to get through. Staff who live close to the base are walking, biking or riding on electric scooters, and using them to get around the base. Staff are encouraged to carpool, to recycle, think twice before printing out a document and to come up with new initiatives.
The Air Force is looking at putting water dispensers on its planes to reduce the amount of bottled water, and staff are being encouraged to bring their own bottles and keep-cups.
One of the most remarkable recycling stories at the base involves funding the Trees for Survival programme, which saw 800 native trees planted by staff and local school children this year around the 330-hectare base.
The tight defence budget didn't stretch to tree planting so staff raised the money by bringing in old metal and aluminium cans for recycling.
The initial $2000 needed to buy the irrigated growing frame and seedlings was donated by a staff member, a dedicated member of the base's sustainability committee. Whenuapai School children grew the seedlings and helped base staff to plant them. But another $790 was needed this year to buy replacement seeds.
Scrap metal belonging to the Air Force is recycled and sold as scrap metal, with the money going back into government coffers. But money raised from "non public" recycling went towards seedlings.
Now Voshaar and her committee have HQ in their sights. The kitchens already compost waste food and have changed to compostable paper plates and cups. But Voshaar wants to see all the waste paper towels from the bathrooms, and the paper plates that get thrown in the rubbish in the mess rooms, composted as well.
The committee's next goal is to make the Air Force Big Night Out, the annual Christmas party involving more than 2000 staff and guests, as zero waste as it's possible to manage. Food will be composted; utensils, glass, paper and cans recycled. It'll be a mammoth task but they're determined to make it work.
Aware they are one of the biggest culprits in terms of carbon footprints, commercial airlines are scrambling to reassure the world they're doing their bit. Press releases have been flying out in the past couple of months.
Air New Zealand embraced Plastic Free July by announcing it will remove nearly 55 million single-use plastic items on flights this year. Gone are those little plastic sauce packets in business class on some routes, and they'll be eliminated entirely from the global network by the end of October.
Instead, passengers will be served sauce in reusable dishes, a move expected to prevent around 20,000 plastic packets a year going to landfill.
The airline has also removed individual plastic water bottles from its business and premium economy cabins, and its "works deluxe" option on some of its trans-Tasman and Pacific services. The move will divert more than 460,000 bottles from landfill annually, and reduce weight on the aircraft.
Plastic cups will be changed to recyclable alternatives by September; coffee cups made from plants rather than plastic will be rolled out across its domestic and international networks from October. Coffee cups and lids used on domestic services will be composted where possible.
That move will reduce plastic water and coffee cups by 44.5 million a year.
The airline's acting head of sustainability, Anna Palairet, said it was great to see more customers bringing their reusable drink bottles and keep-cups on board.
"We encourage people to do this, our cabin crew team is happy to fill these."
Queenstown photographer and keen skier Sheena Haywood takes her own aluminium water bottle and keep-cup wherever she goes now, either up Coronet Peak to ski or on a domestic or international flight. Haywood produced her keep-cup on an Emirates flight coming back from London in June, much to the amusement of the flight attendants.
First she had a glass of wine, then wiped it out and had a cup of coffee. She handed the plastic water pottle back and used her own bottle. To Haywood it's a win-win; she's helping to reduce waste, got a much better serving of wine and her coffee stayed hot.
"It's a mind shift for people, like doing away with plastic bags at the supermarket," Haywood said.
Emirates Airline too has announced it will replace plastic bags for in-flight purchases with paper bags from this month, reducing single-use bags going into landfill by 81.7 million a year. The airline already recycles large water bottles, avoiding an estimated 150,000 bottles a year going into landfill in Dubai.
It has recently introduced paper straws and will soon phase out all plastic straws, swizzle sticks and stirrers.
Two years ago it introduced ecoTHREAD blankets made from recycled plastic bottles for its economy class cabins, keeping 88 million bottles from going into landfill.
Joost Heymeijer, in charge of Emirates' inflight catering and service delivery, says the dilemma is that the airline needs to hold its place as an "aspirational" airline, with airlines like Qatar, Air New Zealand and Singapore airlines snapping at its wings. For that reason he defends the weight of the 570 litres of water carried so 14 first-class passengers can have showers.
Heymeijer points out that while disposable glasses, crockery and cutlery might be lighter, and will therefore reduce fuel burn, in countries like the US anything that comes off planes needed to be incinerated. The airline needed to decide whether a fully disposable solution was in fact the best option, he said.
This month LATAM Airlines will start rolling out its Recycle Your Trip campaign, aiming to recycle more than 20 tonnes of cans, plastic and glass on domestic flights by the end of the year. That figure will rise to 55 tonnes by 2020.
The airline also promotes the recycling of uniforms to convert them into new products or raw materials. The Second Flight programme has enabled 8000 pieces of clothing to be converted into thousands of handicraft products, the airline said. Money from the recycled clothing had also benefitted disadvantaged communities and charities.