Qantas’ Sky-High Ambitions For Airline Recycling

How Qantas worked with recycling consultants Closed Loop to charter a route to better recycling in the air and on the ground.

On World Environment Day this past June, Qantas launched a revamped onboard recycling program on its domestic services. Coinciding with several initiatives to improve the airline’s sustainability, the program means that all recyclable waste on its Boeing 737 and Airbus A330 aircraft will be separated onboard and then disposed of as green waste and then diverted from landfill.

The Qantas program is not, however, a recent development. It is another step in a long-term, challenging project to send less waste from its flights and airport lounges to landfill. 
It is part of a journey that has seen various trials, negotiations with federal government and fellow airlines, as well as consultation with its employees, customers and stakeholders.

Justin Merrell, Qantas Group Manager Corporate Supply Chain and Utilities, has witnessed much of this journey. In his role, Justin manages the airline’s waste reduction initiatives, innovation in landfill diversion, and relationships with waste treatment providers. He has got his hands dirty in bringing this revamped program to fruition, and is integral to the work to do more across the airline.

Bags of rubbish

Justin says that flight crew and ground employees had noticed how many bags of rubbish were coming off aeroplanes and headed for landfill.

“Our cabin crew have always been keen advocates for recycling as much as possible from the waste collected on board our flights,” he says.

Qantas Group carries around 45 million passengers every year, who generate a lot of rubbish. As one of Australia’s leading brands, it had an opportunity to make a significant difference and encourage other large corporates to do the same.

In 2002, as part of Qantas’s commitment to improved sustainability, it engaged Closed Loop. The company started supplying Qantas with recyclable food and drink packaging, as the airline wanted to minimise how much was sent to landfill.

In 2010, Qantas brought Closed Loop into its Innovation Team to look at the sustainability of products on
its international flights. Closed Loop identified the cabin and galley waste streams coming off international aircraft arriving into Sydney Airport
a potential area for recovering more recyclables.

A particular challenge for Qantas 
is that international aircraft rubbish arriving into Australia is classified as quarantine waste. This means that many recyclable products have been included in this waste stream and consequently ended up in landfill.

Qantas and Closed Loop wanted 
to find opportunities in areas with low quarantine risk to divert recyclables from the international waste stream.

In a first for the global airline industry, Qantas and Closed Loop undertook a waste audit of international flights landing at Sydney Airport in August 2012.

Closed Loop’s Courtney McGregor was brought in to facilitate and report on the audit. She was excited to help Qantas learn more about the flow of products through its aircraft in order to roll out a suitable recycling program.

“Airlines have full knowledge and control of what they load, but most do not measure what comes off,” explains Courtney. “The beauty of a waste audit is that you finally get to see the outcome of what you put into the system.”

Waste audit

Donning protective gloves, plastic aprons and hairnets, Justin and Courtney worked with 90 volunteers to audit 27 flights for galley and cabin waste over seven days.

As a consultant who has helped many companies review their waste management and operating practices to improve recycling, Courtney says she admired Qantas for undertaking the audit to address the obstacles to improve recycling.

“I also found it a real thrill that staff from across Qantas – including cabin crew, marketing, customer service and property – volunteered to help with the waste audit,” adds Courtney. “That says a lot about the culture at Qantas. They are willing to step aside from their daily tasks and roll up their sleeves, literally, to volunteer their time towards an environmental project.”

The audit looked at waste coming from the cabin, where passengers sit, and meal carts. Dozens of rubbish bags were taken off the aircraft to a separate hangar and the contents emptied out. The volunteers went through every bag methodically, sorting for recyclables, food waste and items that couldn’t be recovered. Each piece of rubbish and recycling was weighed.

“We found from the cabin that mostly water bottles and plastic wrap were left in seatback pockets and almost half of the amenity kits were left unused,” says Courtney. “By weight, we determined 59 per cent of this waste stream could be recycled.”

Investigating the meal carts showed that most of the waste was food, unopened drinks and aluminium trays. Bread, salad and juice were the main components of the edible waste.

“By weight, 23 per cent of this waste stream was recyclable, but by volume it was 54 per cent,” adds Courtney.

Qantas took immediate action after reviewing the audit results. It changed how cabin crew distributed amenity kits to passengers, which reduced the chances of any being thrown away. It revamped the Economy meal service, so aluminium trays were no longer used to hold the main meal.

Shortly after the audit, Qantas 
also launched “Select on Q”, where passengers can select their meal before boarding. As well as providing greater choice for the passenger, it reduces unnecessary food waste on board.

“Closed Loop helped us to make better choices in the products we use in our business and to make changes to our processes, which enabled us to divert more waste from landfill,” says Justin.

Results

Since 2009, Qantas has diverted 22,328 tonnes of recyclables and achieved a 28% reduction in waste to landfill.

The recently-revamped onboard recycling program is for all domestic Qantas flights. Justin is looking forward to seeing the results in a year’s time.

“We’ve made some small changes onboard which will make a big difference in the amount of recyclable waste we collect,” he says.

In a new onboard announcement, cabin crew ask customers to help them separate aluminium cans, plastic and paper cups, newspapers and plastic bottles for the cabin rubbish collection service. Each aircraft galley also has a dedicated recycling bin, fitted with an identifiable green bag, so the catering staff can quickly and easily divert the contents from landfill.

“We estimate around 400 tonnes
of recyclable waste will be collected and diverted from landfill from Qantas domestic and QantasLink flights in the first year of the revamped program,” says Justin.

One of the keys to the success of this recycling program will be engaging passengers to support it. Qantas is trying to make these easy by offering another opportunity to dispose of recoverable items responsibly.

“As well as separating recyclables for collection on board, customers can take their newspapers and magazines off the aircraft and place them in the commingled recycling bins located at all the major airports,” adds Justin.

Courtney says she is delighted to see the rollout of Qantas’s recycling program throughout its entire domestic network.

“There are a lot of logistics and communications to plan with a recycling program,” Courtney says.

“Cabin crew staff have been wonderful in taking this new program on, as well as its catering centres, where the waste and recycling end up.

“Qantas had always been concerned about asking too much of their passengers in this space, so I do hope they feel the positive effect of having an environmental program that the flying public can be involved with too.”

Following the audit, Qantas and Closed Loop took the report findings to Canberra. They met with the Department of Agriculture to discuss appropriate ways to recycle waste from international flights. The department has recently approved a recycling program for Qantas flights coming into Sydney’s international terminal.

Qantas is continuing to work with federal quarantine waste regulators to determine which items may be collected and safely recycled from international flights without risking Australia’s biosecurity.

International impact

The audit and the subsequent actions to improve recycling from aircraft has also had international impact with other airlines.

“The International Air Transport Association admired the model we used here in Australia and asked Closed Loop and Qantas to replicate it at Heathrow Airport,” says Courtney. “As a result, airlines such as British Airways, Delta and five others participated in the audit, and are now seeking approval to recycle from their local authorities.”

The onboard recycling program is just one of a series of initiatives Qantas operates in its commitment to be Australia’s “greenest airline”.

A Qantas Board sub-committee reviews the Group’s environment strategy every year, which includes a 2020 waste diversion target. Representatives from all major business units come together to discuss and develop initiatives to achieve this target.

“One of our recent success stories has been starting an organic waste collection service, provided by SUEZ,” Justin explains. “This enables food waste to be separated and collected from our lounges and corporate headquarters for composting.”

Qantas has also trialled organic composting units on site, provided by Closed Loop, and returned the compost to employees for their gardens.

Since 2013, Qantas employees have been collecting, sorting and transporting recyclable articles from inbound
Qantas flights in South Australia to
local recycling centres in Adelaide. The Qantas Q-Can-Crew has collected 10 cents from every aluminium can and glass bottle recycled at the SA depot, raising more than $45,000 a year for children’s charities.

“The company has increased its
use of container deposit schemes in South Australia and the Northern Territory this year, and is giving all revenue collected straight to charitable organisations,” Justin says. “The revamped domestic onboard recycling program will generate even more donations.”

A future-fit sustainable airline

Qantas and Jetstar were among the first airlines in the world to introduce a voluntary carbon offsetting program – Fly Carbon Neutral – in 2007. It is now the largest of its kind in the world.

To mark World Environment Day, Qantas updated this program, giving customers the option of paying a small amount to offset the emissions associated with their flight. All proceeds go to community projects in Australia or overseas, which generate carbon credits of more than $1.2 million a year. More than two million tonnes of carbon emissions – the equivalent of planting 12 million trees – have been offset since Qantas and Jetstar introduced the program.

Qantas is also replacing all lighting in operational areas with energy- efficient LED lights and introducing new, lightweight freight containers that will cut fuel consumption.

In 2013, Qantas constructed the largest commercial tri-generation (cooling, heating and electricity) project in Australia. The plant uses natural gas to produce more efficient, lower carbon energy, which powers the airline’s multiple multi-storey building headquarters, catering centre and jet base in Sydney. The plant has reduced CO2 emissions by 23,000 tonnes a year – equivalent to taking 7,000 cars off the road.

Qantas is part of the NSW Office
of Environment and Heritage’s Sustainability Advantage program. It is exploring a number of circular economy projects and will be sharing details of some new initiatives in the near future.

Justin adds that Qantas continues to work with Closed Loop to meet its waste reduction targets and to identify opportunities around the business.

There is no doubt about the
airline’s ongoing commitment to its sustainability targets and its potential to have a positive impact on recycling behaviour and projects across Australia.

“Qantas is in a great position to reach millions of Australians and set the tone for recycling outside the home,” says Courtney. “I see Qantas as an environmental leader not just in the airline industry, but across the corporate world.”

More details on Qantas recycling and sustainability initiatives are available at – www.qantas.com.au/environment.