Airlines learn to recycle flight trash Most carriers have made a start, but more effort needed.


The skies may not be as friendly as they once were, but they are getting greener.

Led by environmentally conscious employees, the nation's airlines are finally beginning to recycle the tons of tiny bottles, aluminum cans and other trash left over from flights.

In the last year, just about every major carrier that didn't have a program of some sort added one. The efforts ranged from the basic, in which flight attendants collect aluminum cans on selected routes, to the more advanced, in which networks of recyclers and caterers cooperate to retrieve materials. The proceeds usually are donated to charity.

So far, the effort usually has been limited to aluminum cans and bigger airports. State and city airport officials have been reluctantto provide centralized collection centers needed to encourage participation. And many airlines continue to use disposable, plastic packaging for meals -- producing tons of what environmentalists say is needless waste.

"A year ago it was still an uphill battle. 1991 was a great year . . . [that is] when everyone in the industry really started getting full-fledged into it," says Jackie Graham, a flight attendant for American Airlines at Los Angeles and a founder of its pioneering recycling program.

The industry's effort is a good one but needs to go further, says Neil Seldman, executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington group active in recycling and environmentalism.

"It's a nice start. . . . The tragedy is it's restricted to aluminum," Seldman says.

Aluminum represents less than 1 percent of the nation's solid waste by volume, he says. Plastics, which are increasingly found in airline food packaging, represent about 30 percent, he says.

Most carriers -- including USAir, the dominant carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- recycle just cans and just at certain airports. But they say they are considering adding other materials and expanding to other airports.

USAir flight attendants began recycling cans in August 1990. Participation is voluntary for flight crews, and limited to domestic flights terminating at one of a dozen airports: BWI; Washington; Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Miami; Syracuse, N.Y.; Boston; Greensboro, N.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; San Francisco; San Diego; and Los Angeles.

"It is unbelievably complicated," says USAir spokesman John Bronson. Arrangements had to be made with recyclers and haulers, airport security, ground and in-flight employees, and aviation officials, he says.

"Baltimore is one of our more active cities. We have a lot of flights in there," Bronson says.

About $10,000 has been raised from the sale of cans recycled at BWI in the past two years, he says. The proceeds were donated to the Nature Conservancy and environmental programming at National Public Radio.

Flight attendants collect cans from passengers in a special green bag that is placed on top of the airplane's other trash. Ground crews then deposit them in bins near the passenger ramps, says Ernie Pickell, a flight attendant supervisor at Baltimore who helps organize the effort here.

Delta, another major carrier at BWI, began recycling cans in October 1990 and uses a similar system. It applies to flights terminating at six airports: Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Dallas-Fort Worth and Orlando, Fla. Baltimore will be added to the system in the spring, says spokesman Bob Harper.

Money from the sale of the cans is donated to Delta's internal charitable fund, Harper says.

An advisory committee is studying other ways to cut waste at the airline, Harper says.

A pioneer in airline recycling, American this week completed a pilot program to recycle polystyrene cups and snack baskets. Individual American employees also have experimented with recycling magazines, newspapers and other trash, Graham says.

Nearly 100,000 pounds of cans were recycled by American in the first half of last year. About $70,000 will be raised this year through sales of the aluminum, and will be donated to charities ranging from the Nature Conservancy Project to the Boy Scouts of America.

A flight attendant began the program at San Jose, Calif., in 1989. It has since gained corporate support and spread to 40 of the 112 airports American serves, including all of its major hubs. Baltimore's participation has been irregular, though planners hope to strike a deal this year with the caterer handling American's flights here.

On some American flights, the cans are collected in separate bags and given to the ground crew -- the same procedure used by USAir and Delta. The more efficient system, in places where caterers are participating, calls for the cans to be sorted on the flight attendant carts and retrieved for recycling by the caterer, Graham says.

The airline also serves meals on reusable ceramic dishes and metal silverware. The foam cups and snack baskets have been collected and recycled at Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport as part of a pilot project. This year the company will expand the effort to Chicago, and, eventually, systemwide, Graham says. The airline uses 67 million foam cups a year.

Seldman, with the Institute for Self-Reliance, says all airlines should employ reusable dishes and silverware. That has proven economical where it has been tried, and greatly reduces solid waste, he says.

Bronson, with USAir, says the caterers that provide the food also provide the silverware and dishes. "The packaging is a bit out of our hands," he says.

Airports themselves could get into the act by providing facilities for recycling, Seldman says. The current system of leaving it up to each airline is inefficient, he says.

"We think jurisdictions with airports should insist on waste reduction," Seldman says.

That will begin this summer at Newark International Airport, says Eric Jensen, superintendent of airport maintenance at the airport. The airport currently has an extensive recycling effort for terminals, but does not yet provide the Dumpsters and facilities for trash produced aboard the airplanes.

"That seems like the next logical step," Jensen says. Because of strict rules governing the importation of trash, the facilities will accept only recyclables from domestic flights, he says.

Other airports are studying such a move, but Jensen says he knows of none currently providing the service.

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