Less waste, better recycling - the future of inflight food service | Finnair Canada
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Less waste, better recycling - the future of inflight food service

Finnair's catering services are developing several areas within recycling and material efficiency. The amount and types of waste has been evaluated in 2019 and 2020 waste audits as well as a thesis completed recently. The information gathered helps find effective action points.

According to Kaisa Jaakkola, Senior Manager QSE at Finnair Kitchen an investigation into the waste produced during a single flight shows efficiently the amount of different waste types produced and how well they are currently recycled.

- Normally the waste is distributed between more than 50 trolleys and 17 waste bins, waste is also handled by several people. Because of this, the total waste is not visible to anyone. Due to this the collection and investigation of all the waste from one flight offers valuable information. The effort to collect and sort the waste is huge and requires two working days for a team of six, totaling around 56 working hours.

Most of the waste produced, over 45 percent, is biowaste containing food and beverages. At Finnair there is a focus on reducing generated biowaste, but also sorting and reusing it as much as possible.

- We now sell fresh products only before flight and all the food is adjusted to passenger numbers. We no longer sell fresh products requiring a cold chain on board, this has greatly reduced biowaste. Sorted biowaste is directed to gasification and manure production, Jaakkola states.

International catering waste outside of EU cannot be sorted into biowaste, and it is incinerated instead. The reason for this is the animal by-product legislation managing animal health risks related to international catering waste.

Based on Finnair's waste audits there is great biogas potential within inflight waste and the company is hoping to open discussion about this lost potential and possible solutions for better circularity of nutrients and materials.

Jaakkola thinks that Finland could be a frontrunner in this matter since both the Finnish authorities and the local waste management businesses are open for development.

Clever use of materials

In addition to biowaste, food packaging and dishes used in the food service are also under consideration at Finnair. For these the recycling objectives are ambitious. For example, the amount of single use plastics is to be halved and at least 50 percent of plastic waste recycled by the end of 2022. Good progress has been made already.

Tender questions for sourced items are one of the ways to find better options. The questions aim to gather information on the composition of the packaging and their recyclability in Finnair’s network.

-  The questions help us to consider how we can manage waste or recycle it better in our end. We are cost conscious, but sustainability is also considered, Jaakkola states.

To help find more sustainable products life cycle analysis is used. As a result of one analysis the plastic cups purchased in the future will be a made of a different plastic to make recycling easier and environmental impact smaller. Paper cups are also used more, since they stay intact in a seat pocket and can be easily re-used by the customer.  The old stock is however used before new items are introduced.  

 - In addition to conducting life cycle analysis we are also in constant dialogue with operators in waste management on what materials are easiest to recycle now, or in the future, Jaakkola says.

Recyclability is also under consideration when items are purchased from destination countries. One example of this is water bottles where tinted plastic or unusual bottle caps are avoided, since they make recycling more challenging.

The 2019 waste audit also highlighted the number of aluminium trays we used. Legislation stops the trays from being recycled if they contain food from outside the EU. Because of this aluminum has now been largely replaced by cardboard.

- Aluminium is a very valuable recyclable material that should not be used if it cannot be re-used, Jaakkola mentions.  

Crew members and passengers have an important role

Good co-operation between crew members, passengers, cleaners, and catering services makes efficient recycling possible. For passengers one of the most important ways to make a difference is ordering your meals ahead of the flight. This is especially significant for long-haul flights.

-  If you prefer to eat vegan for example, you can order a suitable meal in advance at no extra cost. Otherwise, it is likely that the provided meal will not be suitable for you, Jaakkola advises.

It is also a good idea to make a point of noticing how many single use cups you get through during the flight. Even on short flights passengers typically use 2,4 cups per person. By asking refills for the same cup or to your own water bottle you can reduce this amount.

- Even when the cups are only a couple of grams in weight each there could be a saving of hundreds of kilograms of waste every day, if average passenger would use less than two cups, Jaakkola sums up.  


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