Flying home from Seattle to San Francisco on Sunday, I was asked by a jocular flight attendant if I would like to make a donation to the landfill. Yes, indeed. I did. I had an empty aluminum can I really didn’t mean to take off the plane with me, just so I could put it with the recyclables.
It did make me ask what exactly happens to airline trash. As always, it’s thoroughly fascinating. To start with, SFO is proudly green. (To show us how intensely green, the airport keeps—or used to keep—a flock of goats on a strip of wetland at the very edge of the complex. Poor bastards.) More seriously, the facilities are sustainable. There are 50,000 square feet of solar panels on Terminal 3. And the airport diverted 55% of waste collected at the terminals from the landfill and 90% of construction debris in 2008. Everything is collected in a single stream and recyclables are pulled out off-site. A food waste composting program serves the various restaurants.
I suffered a momentary thrill thinking maybe my aluminum can was not destined for landfill after all. But it’s not that simple. The in-flight debris is none of the airport’s business. The airlines or the catering businesses that serve them are in charge of all waste coming off the planes. And it’s the US Department of Agriculture which sets the rules for its handling.
Garbage from domestic flights may be landfilled and apparently also recycled. And, it turns out that United has a recycling program from aluminum cans and plastic cups arriving in Hawaii on domestic flights as of this writing and that it is looking into extending the program to San Francisco and LA. In other words, my hapless seltzer can came along just a little too early to be rescued for another go-round through the wringer of life.
Garbage from international flights meanwhile must be a) incinerated and reduced to .3-percent of the original volume, b) sterilized in an autoclave at 270 degrees F for 45 minutes, or c) shipped back to the country of origin. The idea is to “prevent the infiltration of foreign pests and disease.”
I wonder if anybody at the USDA worries about the pests and diseases we might be exporting to the developing world.