Between the long security lines (wherein you must juggle shoe removal with the loading of your luggage properly onto a conveyor belt, all while keeping track of your  oh-so-important ticket) and the delayed departure times, air travel can be a nuisance before you even step foot on an airplane.  One of the few pleasant consistencies of a process that is decidedly inconsistent, is the complimentary drink and snack service offered on most domestic flights. Once that snack cart starts rolling triumphantly down the aisle, even if it nips my elbow on its blessed journey to quench passenger’s thirst and assuage pangs of mid-flight hunger, I can not help but to perk up a little. “A cola? For me? No charge?” I seem to suffer a mild case of amnesia and do not recall the hundreds of dollars I have likely spent on this flight and how that could easily cover the cost of  Mountain Dew or two.

This service is typically followed by your friendly flight attendant strolling up the aisle with a small plastic bag seeking the debris from you in-flight nosh.  What happens to that debris is the topic of a report conducted by the nonprofit  environmental group, Green America. The report’s title, “The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry,” reads like a huge spoiler for the content that follows. Hint, hint…things are not looking too green up in the skies of blue. The report asserts that airlines in the United States of America alone generate over 880 million pounds of waste per year, of which 75 percent is said to be recyclable. Only 20 percent of that is actually recycled!

In addition to all these fun percentages, the report also contains rankings of the major airlines in the United States based on five areas of assessment: the variety in waste recycled,  any future in-flight recycling plans, the size of in-flight recycling program, the education/encouragement of employees in onboard recycling programs and other in-flight sustainability initiatives. The airlines were ranked as follows, 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.  Despite of the rank received, no airlines currently recycle all of the main types of recyclables: aluminum cans, glass, plastic and paper.

While this report may sound all doom and gloom, there is  hope for the airline industry and its apparent aversion to recycling.  The most important variable in implementing these changes  is you, the passenger. Green America Corporate Responsibility Director Todd Larsen explains,  “A lot of companies will do something that’s green if they feel there’s public support for doing it.” Green America further suggests that people become proactive passengers by  doing things, such as: questioning your flight attendant about a particular airlines recycling policy, removing your debris  yourself whenever possible to recycle at home, and  by writing to airlines in order  to voice your support of such programs.  They have also provided a  form  on their website where you are encouraged to share your airline recycling experiences, both positive and negative.

It may be easy to just accept your Mountain Dew and surrender your can at the end of the flight to the trash bag in your flight attendant’s well-manicured hands, but being a decent citizen of planet Earth, you know that doing the easy thing is not always the same as doing the right thing. Encourage airlines to bone up on recycling 101 by writing to the companies and support airlines that do implement in-flight recycling programs. Every time that bag comes around ask your flight attendant “Is there a place to recycle this?” The more they hear requests like these, the more likely they will change the policy. When in-flight recycling is not available, shove that empty can and newspaper into your carry on bag to recycle at home.

And while you are at it-making these hard decisions and doing the right thing- you could do the environment a huge solid and simply fly less. In-flight recycling is much easier to implement when the snack cart is your kitchen cabinets.

-Meghan Hurley