Airlines Receive Poor Marks on Recycling Report Card

Date: February 18, 2010

Source: Green America

A new report by environmental group Green America reveals that many of the larger commercial airlines have a long way to go when it comes to recycling the massive amounts of waste generated on passenger flights. According to the report, subtitled "The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry," airlines generate more than 880 million pounds (1.3 pounds per average passenger) of waste each year of which 75 percent is recyclable, but only 20 percent is actually recycled. The report cites startling statistics from 2004 National Resource Defense Council research that says airlines threw away in one year enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747 jets, 9,000 tons of plastic and enough newspaper and magazines to cover a football field 230 meters deep. Green America graded 11 airlines after reviewing a variety of sources. The highest grade, a B-, went to Delta Airlines and Virgin America, while both United Airlines and US Airways were given an F.

Press Release:

New Airline Recycling Rankings: United and US Airways Flunk, while Delta, Virgin, and Southwest get best grades, according to

  • US Airlines Generate Over 880 Million Pounds of Waste Annually -- 75 Percent of Which Could Be Recycled,but Only 20 Percent Is; Consumers Urged to Factor Recycling Policies Into Air Travel Decisions.

Which airlines are taking steps to reduce the vast amount of waste generated each year by the industry? Delta, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest are doing the best job, according to the new report "What Goes Up Must Go Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry" from Green America's consumer watchdog Web site ( The report also shows that United and US Airways are doing the worst job when it comes to recycling.

Overall, airlines could recycle nearly 500 million more pounds of waste each year (including 250 million pounds of in-flight waste). While airlines acknowledge the importance of recycling waste, no airline recycles all the major recyclables: aluminum cans, glass, plastic, and paper. No airline has a comprehensive program for minimizing or composting food waste or waste from snack packages, provides good public information about their recycling program, or reports out on progress in relation to any stated goals. In addition, all airlines provide over-packaged snacks and meals and none of the airlines are working with manufacturers to reduce this waste.

The Green America airline recycling rankings are (from best to worst): Delta Airlines, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, Jet Blue, American Airlines, British Airways, Air Tran, United Airlines, and US Airways.

Green America Responsible Shopper Lead Researcher Victoria Kreha said: "For concerned consumers looking to spend their travel dollars wisely, airline waste may be the ultimate example of ‘what goes up must come down.' The good news is that airlines are starting to pay attention to recycling; the bad news is that they have a long way to go to improve the situation. Fortunately, airlines can overcome any of the challenges to creating in-flight recycling programs, including employee education and involvement, knowledge of the type of waste produced, and a time- and space-efficient system."

Green America Corporate Responsibility Director Todd Larsen said: "While airlines may face some challenges in creating effective recycling programs, evidence shows that working systems can be implemented. Our report demonstrates that several airlines are significantly ahead of their competitors in taking these steps, and it is clear that comprehensive recycling programs can be implemented effectively and economically."

The report looks at five areas: variety in waste recycled, future in-flight recycling plans, size of in-flight recycling program, education/encouragement of employees in onboard recycling programs, other in-flight sustainability initiatives, and provides overall rankings. Industry-wide finds that there is room for tremendous improvement and no airline received higher than a B- grade overall.

Nearly 75 percent of in-flight generated waste is recyclable; however only about 20 percent actually is recycled. According to research published by the Natural Resource Defense Council, annually, airlines throw away 9,000 tons of plastic, enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747 jets, and enough newspaper and magazines to cover a football field 230 meters deep. The energy savings from recycling this waste would represent a contribution by the airlines to reducing their environmental impact in the face of the considerable climate impact of jet fuel, including 600 million tons of carbon dioxide per year pumped into the atmosphere by commercial jets alone.

Beyond the environmental benefits, recycling this waste would create jobs nationwide, since according to Colorado Recycles, recycling creates six times as many jobs as landfilling

In addition to the overall dismal recycling policies of the airlines, Green America's on-flight research identified that some airlines are not actually implementing their stated policies in the air. As a result, Green America is calling on passengers nationwide to respectfully ask flight attendants if materials on their specific flights are being recycled, and to report their findings to Green America at

The full Airline recycling report is available at Contact information for all of the airlines is available in the report for passengers wishing to contact airlines to request that they improve their recycling practices.


ResponsibleShopper ( informs concerned consumers about problematic corporate practices, action campaigns and ways to live greener in relation to more than 150 major consumer companies. ranks companies in 27 industry categories from best to worst based on research focusing on such key issues as human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability and more. Major consumer companies ranked by include such brand-name corporations as McDonalds, WalMart, Coca Cola, Disney, Hanes, and General Electric.

Companies are listed and ranked on in the following categories: agribusiness; airlines; appliances; athletic wear; automobiles; banking/financial; beauty and body care; beverage/water; big box retailers; big pharma; booksellers; chemicals; cleaning products; clothing; coffee; computer/electronics; department stores; electric utilities; electronics; fast food; food; gas/oil; home improvement/building; Internet; mass media (TV, radio, film); supermarkets; tires; tobacco; and toys/games.


Green America (formerly Co-op America) is the leading green economy organization. Founded in 1982, Green America provides the economic strategies, organizing power and practical tools for businesses and individuals to solve today's social and environmental problems. Green America's green economy programs encourage corporate responsibility, tackle climate change, build fair trading systems, advance healthy, local communities, and provide green purchasing and investing information for families and businesses.

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CONTACT: Leslie Anderson, (703) 276-3256 or

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