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How To Fly Plastic-Free (as Much as Possible)

On Tuesday night I flew from Perth, Australia to London, England to see friends and family and spend some time back in the motherland. It’s a 21 hour flight (divided into two parts – 7 hours from Perth to Hong Kong, and 12 hours from Hong Kong to London). Flying is bad for the environment, we all agree – but I was determined not to add to the huge carbon cost by generating a huge amount of waste too. The question is – is it even possible to fly waste-free?

Despite my best efforts, I still probably produced more waste in those 21 hours than I’ve generated in the entire rest of the year. But there’s definitely things you can do to keep your waste down.

Preparation – What To Think About

With flying, trying to minimise your waste can be managed in two parts. Firstly, there’s all the things that you can do before you get to the airport. Like with all zero-waste and plastic-free habits, success comes with planning. Thinking about things to bring that will reduce reliance on single-use plastic, or avoid any other unnecessary packaging. Anything that you can bring of your own will produce the need to use a plastic-wrapped version on the plane. Think cutlery, cups, water bottles, headphones, blankets, a pillow, thick socks, a toothbrush…if there is something you know you’ll need or want, it’s best to bring it with you.

Secondly, there’s the choices you make once your strapped into your seat. If you’ve had to accept something made of plastic, is it possible to re-use it to get as much life out of it as possible? Can you even make choices that use less plastic, or create less waste?

plastic headphones and blankets

Plastic-wrapped headphones and plastic-wrapped blankets awaiting our arrival on our seats – fortunately we were able to return these as we had brought our own!

What to Wear – Keeping Comfortable (and Warm)

It doesn’t matter how hot it’s going to be at your destination, or how hot it is at your departure point, it is going to be freezing on that plane once the air conditioning is cranked up to maximum. You may be really excited you’re headed to the beach, but that’s no excuse to wear skimpy shorts and flip-flops on the plane. You. Will. Freeze. Once you’re cold, you’ll be reaching for those single-use airline socks, and the plastic-wrapped blanket; your best intentions to keep the unnecessary waste at bay will be long gone.

Pack a thick pair of socks, leggings or long trousers, and a warm jumper. A scarf is useful and can double up as a pillow or second blanket. If you have space, take your own blanket and pillow too.

Headphones

Airline headphones usually have that weird double pin adapter, so you can’t plug your own headphones into the jack. Except, you can. It’s possible to buy these adaptors for just a couple of dollars. When ordering mine, I was concerned that they might arrive wrapped in plastic, so was delighted when they arrived with minimal packaging. I was less delighted when I got on the plane and found I didn’t need it for these flights – the airline had standard headphone jacks!

Airline headphone adaptors zero waste

These 2-pin headphone jacks mean I no longer have to use airline headphones which are packaged in plastic, and have foam earpieces which are thrown away after just a single use.

If you don’t want to buy an adaptor, or leave it behind, don’t hand the headphones you are given back at the end of the flight. Keep them for any other legs, and the return journey, and hand them in when you’re back home. Before I got a headphone adapter I’d do this – it reduced the number of headsets I used from 4 to 1. As each headset is packaged in plastic, that saves three plastic bags, as well as 6 replacement fuzzy ear bits (they are replaced after each use).

Food

Did you know you can take your own food onto the plane? Most flights will let you bring your own food; you just might not get it off the plane and through customs at the other end. What effort you want to go to is up to you, but if you can bring your own snacks it will mean not needing to eat those tiny packets of peanuts, or other plastic-wrapped snacks that will probably make you feel stodgy and unhealthy anyway.

Yes, your flight was probably expensive. But trying to recoup some of the cost by eating 27 packets of peanuts won’t really cut it. Honestly.

As for meals, if you have the choice to not order the meal (if you are on a charter flight), don’t. Anything you bring from home will taste better and be far more nutritious. But commercial flights often don’t give you the option, and you can’t phone up and cancel your meal. If you refuse your meal on the plane, it will go in the bin. I generally do eat the plane meals, particularly anything “fresh” (you know what I mean!), but I hand back the long-life stuff in the hope it will get passed to someone else.

Drinks – Bring Your Own Water Bottle (and a KeepCup!)

You can’t take bottled water through customs, but you can take reusable water bottles through, provided they are empty. What’s more, once you are through customs, many airports offer filtered water for refilling your bottles, so you can get on the plane with a full bottle of water. At the three airports I travelled through (In Perth, Hong Kong and London Heathrow), all had free water bottle refilling stations.

water bottle refill at airport

Water bottle refills are available after security at most airports meaning if you bring your own bottle, there’s no need for single-use plastic cups on the flight!

Once your on the plane, you can hand your empty bottle to a steward and ask them to refill it for you.

If you really want to avoid waste on the plane, just stick to drinking water rather than individual serves of spirits, soft drinks, juice and other alcohol. Bring a KeepCup for tea or coffee.

Toiletries

Current rules for international flights state that if you want to take your toiletries onto the plane, they have to be presented in a clear, resealable plastic bag. The most obvious way to avoid this is to check your toiletries in by placing them in hold luggage. If this isn’t an option for you, and you’re travelling with others, sharing will reduce the number of bags needed. If you do need to take a bag, keep it so you can reuse it when you next fly – just store it with your passport so you don’t forget!

Duty-Free

Duty-free generally means excessive packaging, but if you’re thinking you’ll pick up a couple of (glass) bottles of duty-free alcohol, many airports now insist that this is packaged in sealed plastic bags for security purposes. On top of that, the glass bottles are often packaged with foam nets, which is also made from plastic. If you’ve gone somewhere and want to bring some of the local tipple home, buy it before you fly at a local store and pack it in your hold luggage – you may even find it is cheaper than the inflated airport prices. Just remember to check the customs restrictions for your destination!

Do you have any tips for travelling plastic- and waste-free? Is there anything else you’d add to this list? Or do you find it’s easier to suspend your waste ideals for the holidays? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think!

Twenty-four trees

So we’re off to Thailand in just over a week for a long-overdue rest and holiday. We’re flying there. You don’t need to tell me that flying is not a very sustainable form of transport. When I lived in England I was very disapproving of flying. Then I met my partner, an Australian, and moved out here, and it changed my perspective a little.

The first thing I had to reconsider was that wherever in the world we lived, one half of our family would be the other side of the world. Neither of us are prepared to never see our families again in order to try to combat climate change. Have you heard of food miles? Well there’s another concept, called “love miles”, which is the distance that we need to travel in order to see our friends and family and loved ones.

Before flying existed, or until it became affordable for the masses, most people would marry and remain within their communities and wouldn’t need to travel very far. I’m sure in the future, indeed I hope in the future, that flying will become so unaffordable or undesirable that this becomes the case once again, as people re-embrace their local communities. In the meantime, it is very cheap and easy to fly anywhere in the world and for most people, our love miles are pretty high.

The other thing I discovered when I moved here is that Australia is very far away from everything (and everyone) else. Even the other side of the same country is a few hours by flying, or a few days by driving. Having lived all my life in Europe, I have been spoiled. I could travel by boat or by train, or even drive, and reach numerous different countries in a matter of hours. I didn’t need to fly to see ancient ruins, buzzing modern cities, and beautiful rural landscapes, or to visit snow-capped mountains or golden beaches. I love experiencing different cultures; it makes me feel more connected to the world and travelling inspires me. In Europe it’s at your fingertips; here in Australia, it is not.

So I’ve come to accept that, living in Australia, I will probably need flying in my life, at least in the short-term.

What does this mean for the environment?

I was wondering, how much carbon will I be generating by flying to Thailand? And what can I do about it? I plugged all the info into a carbon calculator. My flight will generate 1 tonne of C02. Each way. And I’m going with my partner. So we’re generating 4 tonnes of C02, according to the calculator.

The website suggests that to offset this amount of carbon, I can pay $90, which will plant 24 trees.

I’m not really a fan of carbon offsetting. I feel like it’s a capitalist response to an environmental problem – paying money to alleviate guilt, or buying your way out of a situation. I feel like it benefits the wealthy, who can afford to pay to offset their travel more than others. I’m not completely convinced that it is the best way to help the environment. It seems so…detached. I have heard stories and worked at places that are involved with tree planting and investigated carbon trading, and my experience is that these organisations are committed to plant trees irrespective of whether they get funding by these schemes, although of course the money helps. But does it actually mean more trees get planted? Or does it mean that organisations can free up other funds to spend elsewhere? These carbon trading schemes are often run as businesses, too – so not all the money is going straight to tree-planting. I don’t like that aspect, either.

I may feel like these schemes are a little flawed, but that’s not to say that they aren’t still worthwhile. For people who are cash-rich, or time-poor, they offer a solution. And they’re making the concept of offsetting your flights easy and available to the general public. But I’m not going to be paying $90. I am, however, thinking about these 24 trees. I want to do something which I feel more accountable to. Ideally I’d like to plant my own trees. I’m wondering if there’s a local tree-planting scheme that I can get involved with (either when I’m in Thailand or back home). If that’s not possible, I hope to find a not-for-profit group to donate to where the money will go directly to local tree planting – trees that I can see.

Of course, not flying is still the best option, and I don’t intend to to be flying regularly. We don’t intend to go back to the UK every year, for example. I’ve also made a commitment not to use budget airlines, because I think that they are even more unsustainable than the bigger airlines. I don’t think flying should be cheap, and if governments didn’t allow airlines to avoid paying tax and fuel duty, it wouldn’t be. But as I now realise that I will be taking more flights over the coming years than I have in the past, I need to come up with some way of mitigating my cost to the environment in the best way that I can.

Starting with twenty-four trees.