In 2019, Alaska Airlines, which is the fifth-largest U.S. carrier, started looking into what single-use items onboard had the biggest environmental impact.
“By and large, plastic water bottles were the largest contributor of waste,” said Todd Traynor-Corey, managing director of guest products for the airline. “And even though a big percentage of them were recycled, many of them did end up inevitably in the landfills or in the ocean.”
Conversations around plastics began before the coronavirus pandemic but were accelerated when Alaska started giving passengers individual bottles of water in lieu of its normal refreshment service.
Traynor-Corey said the change will remove an estimated 22 million plastic cups and 32 million plastic bottles, or about 1.8 million pounds of single-use plastics, from flights through 2022. To put that figure in perspective, that’s equivalent to the weight of 18 Boeing 737s.
Plastic waste is a monumental problem beyond the airline industry. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that the containers and packaging category of plastics, such as disposable bottles and bags, accounted for over 14.5 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018.
Alaska Airlines’ move comes after other “green” initiatives from the company, like having passengers preorder fresh food items before their flights to reduce waste.
“We were the first airline to eliminate plastic straws and go strawless, and what we learned from that is we can actually influence the industry to move in a direction,” Traynor-Corey said. “And we hope that this change of Boxed Water also does that and that other airlines follow in our footsteps.”
On a bigger scale, the company has a five-part plan for improving its environmental footprint, said Bobbie Egan, director of external communications for Alaska Airlines.
To reach goals such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, Egan said the company is investing in novel propulsion aviation technology (planes that fly without burning fossil fuels), using artificial intelligence to fly more fuel-efficient routes, and adding more fuel-efficient planes to its fleet.
“It’s not one item that will help get us there,” Egan said. “We’re looking at it holistically through waste and water and also tackling the biggest issue, which is climate emissions, which is what we contribute to the most.”