Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

A ride on Etihad’s plastic-free flight is in line with my own eco-conscious journey

What the airline has done is redefine what is possible when it comes to reducing waste during air travel

A few years ago, when I was living in London, before the TV series Blue Planet and the menace of ocean plastics became daily news, I did something that was considered quite radical at the time: I gave up single-use plastics.

I don’t just mean I stopped using plastic water bottles or coffee cups – although that’s a feat in itself in today’s disposable world; I actually found ways to replace every tiny bit of non-reusable plastic I came across in daily life. It was an experiment designed to see if it were possible to live without this material that has gradually inched into every aspect of our existence.

Living an eco-friendly lifestyle

During this time, I did all the things people now accept as normal: taking my own metal water bottle with me everywhere – they were so rare back then, I was actually worried transport police would think I was carrying small munitions in my handbag – as well as a KeepCup and reusable shopping bag.

I overhauled every aspect of my home life. In the bathroom, I replaced moisturiser, shower gels, shampoo and conditioner with solid, package-free bars from Lush, and purchased an old-school stainless steel safety razor with replaceable steel blades. I took a recycled glass pickle jar down to my local coffee shop and convinced them to sell me fresh beans by the kilogram. I only bought cheese wrapped in wax or paper, and demanded that cafes and restaurants not put straws in my drinks.

I organised for milk to be delivered in glass bottles, fermented my own yoghurt and strained it to make labneh, baked bread, admittedly with the help of a bread machine, and even made my own crackers in the oven. Chewing gum was on my banned list, as it too contains plastic.

If this all sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Avoiding plastic means constantly fighting against the tide of consumerism and, after less than a year, I realised that it was difficult to be so vigilant all the time. The real change needed to come not only from individuals, but also from the organisations that keep pushing these needless wrappings and throwaway products at us.

Avoiding plastic means constantly fighting against the tide of consumerism and, after less than a year, I realised that it was difficult to be so vigilant all the time.

One of my greatest frustrations as a regular traveller was the mountains of plastic that seem to pile up on the tray table during flights, where there is little choice but to accept what is put in front of you: individually wrapped bread rolls, plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic film, condiments, butter and milk, all doled out in sachets and miniature cups that will probably be thrown out untouched.

Flight attendants even have a habit, I’ve noticed, of doubling up plastic cups for drinks, because they seem to be too flimsy. I could understand why this was convenient – and sometimes necessary – for a sector where food must be kept fresh in challenging conditions. Yet, every flight I went on, I could feel the frustration rising at how recklessly wasteful we have become. Which is why I was so intrigued to be invited on the first-ever ultra-long-haul plastic-free flight with Etihad Airways on Monday.

Flying plastic-free with Etihad

Before moving on, we must acknowledge that emissions from regular air travel have a big impact on the environment, and the fight to reduce single-use plastics should not distract from this. Rather, given that the two things are related as products of the petrochemicals industry, improving one should be accompanied by commitments to also do everything possible to reduce the effect of the other.

Putting this aside, what ­Etihad has done is redefine what is possible when it comes to reducing waste during air travel. During the 14-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane, timed to coincide with Earth Day, the airline managed to replace or remove almost 100 types of single-use plastic without any obvious negative impact on quality or service.

If anything, it was better. The products provided on board looked and felt high quality. The cutlery was made from lightweight steel that, while flimsier than regular cutlery because of the need to reduce weight, was definitely a step up from plastic. And without all of the needless packaging ­piling up, the meal plate looked comparatively minimal and stylish.

The vanity kits were nicely put together – a pair of socks and an eye mask made from recycled bottles were accompanied by a reusable toothbrush made from a wheat-straw composite. And, rather than individual disposable tubes, a jar full of chewable toothpaste tablets was available in the bathrooms.

The star of the show was definitely the Cupffee edible cups made from wafer-like biscuit that can last for up to 40 minutes filled with a hot beverage without going soggy. It’s fun elements such as this that will amuse ­customers and draw them into the ­sustainability message ­without making the experience feel austere.

The flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane also had edible coffee cups as well as wheat-straw toothbrushes and toothpaste tablets. 
The flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane also had edible coffee cups as well as wheat-straw toothbrushes and toothpaste tablets. 

While this was a one-off occasion, designed to prove the concept and push suppliers to meet Etihad’s sustainability demands, the Abu Dhabi airline is aiming to remove 80 per cent of single-use plastics by 2022.

Once one airline takes the lead on this issue, it’s hard to imagine others won’t see the benefits and quickly follow suit. And hopefully, it won’t be long before an airline meal in plastic packaging is as unfashionable as single-use plastic water bottles and straws are becoming today.

The writer travelled as a guest of Etihad Airways

Updated: April 24, 2019 01:24 PM

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