By Jo Austin

As sustainability moves up the agenda, disposables are getting a bad press. Jo Austin asks are their days numbered for inflight service?

Disposable tableware is affordable and convenient. It can be made in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes and is lightweight. Sounds perfect for the onboard airline catering industry, right? So what’s the problem?

The answer is nothing – while it is in use, that is. The issue occurs once these products have reached the end of their life. Plastic items have come in for particular criticism, in part due to their impact on ocean eco-systems, as highlighted by the BBC’s hit show Blue Planet II. But as consumer awareness shifts towards green options, what are airlines to do?

Belgium-based deSter (now part of gategroup) was probably the ‘founder’ of tableware for the hospitality industry, established in 1936. Global director product development Philippe De Naeyer says: “The bottom line is that disposables are light, and less weight means less CO2 emissions.

“However, rotables are still commonly used for long-haul flights due to the fact that washing facilities are available in the catering stations. In some cases we see a shift from disposables to rotable; some airlines keep steel cutlery in the main cabin due to the zero-plastic perception.

“Key factors that influence this decision are the onboard service model, weight impact on carbon footprint, available space, legislation, supply chain setup and the need for flexibility.

“Short-haul operations mostly don’t include washing facilities and here the trend continues to be towards disposable packaging and service ware. Also for buy-on-board meals, disposables are used as most often they cannot return to the caterer who pre-packed the food.”

Many shades of green

LSG Group’s inflight equipment subsidiary, SPIRIANT, supplies both rotable and disposable items to airlines. For charter flights, disposable is always the first choice, but the business has developed a portfolio of sustainable products. “Reusable, recycling and compostable solutions are one way to make an impact and we are also increasingly looking into waste and recycling management with our suppliers”, says Vladislav Voron, product manager leisure & smart solutions.

One big issue, says WK Thomas sales director Des Thurgood, is that a lot of disposables, particularly plastics, are demonised by the term ‘single use’. “This is inaccurate in a lot of cases as many disposables, including plastics, have a high degree of recycled content.

“The fact that many disposables do not need to be washed and can be compostable, means the [green] argument is more complex than many want to admit. Disposable packaging protects hygiene standards and can prolong the life of food within the supply chain as well.”

Similarly, Jane Bernier-Tran, vp global sales and marketing at RMT Global Partners, says the low cost and efficiency of disposables means they are likely to remain an integral part of inflight service.
In France, from January 2020, a new law will require all disposable tableware to be made from 50% biologically-sourced materials that can be composted. But there is debate within scientific and manufacturing sectors worldwide as to whether the energy required to produce environmentally friendly plastics is greener than the alternatives.

Cost is king

Kaelis Group is looking for eco-friendly materials to comply with new regulations but acknowledges that price is a challenge for the airline industry. Chief executive Federico Heitz says: “Disposable products could continue to work if made 100% of one material which can be recycled. Meanwhile, we are looking at compostable solutions but they are still more expensive. In a move to reduce the CO2 footprint we have designed a stackable food container that reduces transport costs simply by needing less space.“

It’s a balancing act

Global-C is in this space too. Director Wayne Costigan insists disposables are here to stay, though the emphasis is now on considering how products are handled after use. “We have designed ‘environmentally-friendlier’ solutions to satisfy a range of end-of-life scenarios,” he says. “That means PET recycling systems in Europe; compostable cutlery packs, dishes and paper cups that will disappear over shorter periods; and polymer coatings for paperboard that can be recycled, composted or incinerated.” 

Seattle-based Global Inflight Products (GIP) has been supplying onboard products for over 20 years. Chief executive Lisa Benzaoui says market trends in disposables is a balancing act between environmental concerns and cost, while customers are still demanding durable, versatile products that enhance the brand image.

The issue is impacting across the table setting with a greater demand for pocket-fold napkins: “As the trend to eliminate plastic bags gains momentum, pocket-fold napkins with cutlery are a great way to present passengers with an elegant yet affordable solution. These products can be made using biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable materials, “ says Benzaoui.