Where Does Leftover Food From Planes Go?

**UPDATE:25/04/2020 @13:22 UTC – First paragraph food wastage figures amended.**

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that in 2017, 1.14 million tonnes of food was wasted from in-flight catering, according to its research. Action has been taken to manage waste in recent years but where does all this unusable food go?

Plane flies over landfill in the Philippenes
What happens to leftover food waste? Photo: Getty Images

What’s the problem with in-flight food waste?

Over the years, we’ve seen many airlines adopting more sustainable methods of reducing cabin waste. From eliminating plastic straws to introducing edible food trays, the industry is shifting its focus to operate in a more environmentally beneficial manner. However, the food waste dilemma is one that’s still in the works.

20% of all food produced by in-flight catering teams is wasted every single year. The problem not only amounts to a significant financial deficit for airlines but also creates colossal pressure on overburdened landfill sites.

The issue is something that airlines are aware of. However, as the industry grows, it would seem that more needs to be done to reduce food waste for a sustainable future. There is now a global target to cut food waste in half in the next nine and a half years.

First, let’s take a look at how food waste is currently managed.

flight attendant serves food
Airlines are now trying to reduce food waste, but what’s the problem? Photo: Delta News Hub via Flickr

Sending food to landfill sites

When it comes to disposing of food waste, airlines have a few options depending on which food they are dealing with. The majority of opened food will end up in a landfill. This is the go-to option when nothing else can be done. Opened packets and half-eaten meals cannot be reused or donated. While some may be salvaged for composting purposes, airlines are really at the mercy of international food waste laws. This legislation predicates where they may dispose of their waste and how.

Did you know that there are International Cabin Waste laws that ensure airlines separate their animal waste products from fruits and vegetables in certain countries? The IATA says that:

“…the animal (meat) derived component of food waste generated on international flights […] is subject to regulation in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, European Union, New Zealand, and the USA. Although some jurisdictions such as the USA extend the definition to include waste comprising fruit and vegetables.”

However, while landfill is always a seemingly easy option, there are other methods that are more planet and people conscious.

LSG Chefs prep food
Different waste management options are available for different foods. Photo: LSG Sky Chefs via Wikimedia Commons

Reusing and donating cabin food

Some food items can be collected and funneled back into the supply chain. Packets of sugar, crisps, and unopened alcohol, for example, can be redistributed on other flights. Air New Zealand has been able to divert 890 tonnes of food since 2017 using this method that would have otherwise gone to landfills.

However, collecting these food articles and separating them from waste is a labor-intensive process. Passengers should take only what they need and consume what they have to avoid unnecessary food wastage. With our current health crisis, the threat of contact transmission raises concerns about this method.

Another development in recent years has been the increase in surplus airline food donations. Previously, airlines, as well as other food vendors, were cautious about donating surplus food because of the legal ramifications. If a consumer became unwell due to food that had been donated, the donor would be culpable.

Cathay Pacific 777-300
New food donation regulations have helped Cathay Pacific to donate to food banks. Photo: BriYYZ via Flickr

Thankfully, this somewhat archaic way of thinking is now being lifted. Food donors are slowly being safeguarded from legal repercussions on the edibles that they donate. Such shifts in legislation have prompted airlines like Cathay Pacific to hand out leftover food. The Asian airline works with food banks in Hong Kong and, in 2016, provided 234 tonnes of in-flight meals.

Is more being done to reduce food waste?

The airline food industry is evolving to create opportunities for carriers to reduce waste. While more options are needed for the sustainable disposal of in-flight meals, the focus is currently more on how airlines can stop producing so much food in the first place.

“Airlines can use surveys or previous meal selections for frequent flyers to provide more bespoke service offerings, thus reducing waste. Airlines are also beginning to introduce algorithms to optimize both food and drink victualling, which results in weight optimization and less wastage.”IATA, Cabin Waste Handbook.

As a result, several solutions have been curated and are being carried out by airlines across the world. These schemes include reducing buy-on-board options for short-haul flights. This prevents airlines from over-ordering and wasting stock when the demand is not there. Instead, airlines need to rely on algorithms that can predict how customers will order.

EVA air meal
If passengers preorder their meals, there will be less waste. Photo: Altair78 via Wikimedia Commons

How can passengers help?

The world’s carriers are doing their bit, and onus also lies with the traveler to make conscious decisions too. Airlines are now making a more conscious effort to promote pre-flight meal ordering. This system relies on passengers choosing their meals before their journey and consequently prevents undesired meals being created, ensuring that food is more likely to get eaten. While it may seem like a hassle, pre-ordering your meal can really help airlines to reduce their cabin waste.

Do you think the airline industry is doing enough to reduce food waste? Can you think of any more solutions that could help? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.