June 19, 2024

Think twice – plastic cups

As net-zero targets move up the sustainability agenda Alison Wells, from Plane Talking Products, asks how can the humble plastic cup inspire onboard buyers to think twice about purchasing decisions, for the good of the planet?

Onboard sustainability is fast moving up the travel agenda and the PLANET Action Group set up as part of Onboard Hospitality’s Get Onboard Now! campaign identified the need for serious industry-wide action and radical thinking. Key innovators and thought leaders joined the kick-off sessions and a shocking statistic came to light: on average eight plastic cups are used for each passenger on each long haul Economy flight.

This got me thinking. If airlines and suppliers want to become more sustainable, we must all recognise that it is not only about working in greener ways and supplying more sustainable products, but about looking at the entire end-to-end supply chain. We have to make as many positive changes as we can to reduce impacts on the environment all along the supply chain, and perhaps by focusing on the lifecycle of those plastic cups and considering small changes, the results can add up to a big difference for the environment.

The checklist on the facing page shows just what an environmentally fraught process the purchase of just one product can be, but also just how we could make better choices to cut impacts on the planet fast.

The aviation sector has made public commitments to becoming net zero by 2050. Suppliers have to get on the pathway to net zero too and demonstrate sustainable operations in support of airline and passenger efforts. Cost will inevitably be a factor in these choices but this is now just something we have to do. Looking at the total lifecycle cost of a product can help airlines (and their suppliers/partners) decide where and how to direct their spending to ensure they have the biggest eco impacts. 

Think about change

Think materials…

Traditionally clear plastic cups are made from food grade PP. Plastic. By virtue of the fact that it’s food grade, it’s virgin material. The material is extruded and thermo formed into cups, packed and shipped out.

Seek alternatives to PP and consider a multi-purpose cup that works for both hot and cold drinks. Recycled PP that is food grade is also on the cards and this will be a game-changer. Currently made in the UK or Europe, meaning transport and handling would be cut significantly for European operations.

Think transport…

Typically plastic cups are  transported by truck, most likely old-tech high-polluting diesel trucks, taking them from the factory to the port. 

Switch to electric or hybrid vehicles for product transport and consider packing specifications which increase the number of items per box and reduce packaging. Try sourcing closer to home too. 

Think shipping…

The cups are then sent by a container ship consuming huge amounts of fossil fuel – usually long distance from the Far East. In port they are unloaded and trucked to a warehouse, unloaded and handled onto the shelves. Picked as required they are trucked again to caterers for loading.

Wind-assisted container ships are already a reality. One UK-based company is developing technology to harness wind power for these vessels. This exceeds the sector’s 80% CO2 reduction towards net zero. Fuel and costs can be saved. Shipping goods direct to the point of consumption also saves on shipping and handling, so try to avoid shipping to global cargo hubs for onward distribution.

Think service delivery…

Once onboard the aircraft, the cups are given to passengers at each food and drink service and as requested on a long haul flight. 

Here’s where real change can happen. Consider rotable cups that can be used inflight and kept for post-flight use, or systems that allow passengers to bring their own reusable cups onboard, coffee shop style. Increasingly consumers want to be greener and this can be presented as a point of  sustainable difference.

Think disposal…

Used once, plastic cups are thrown into the rubbish for disposal. After the flight they are removed from the aircraft and sent for incineration or in some locations to landfill.

A rotable cup can be washed and reused many times or taken home by the passenger for post-flight use. 

Or, with recycled PP cups, airlines can close the loop by segregating used plastic cups onboard and collecting them airside for recycling, in much the same way most airlines already recycle headsets these days. In this scenario the plastic cups go on to live another day as another cup.

At Plane Talking Products we believe now is the time to transform our approaches to sustainability. Real change has to happen at every level. We have to pool our knowledge, share the challenges, and find the best ways forward together. Keep talking, keep collaborating and together we can come up with new, even better and more ingenious solutions. alison@planetalking.net