Q: I was flying cross-country from Los Angeles to New York last week and I noticed that the flight attendants go through an awful lot of cans. Are they recycling them? What about all the papers they clean up from the aisles? Are airlines being held to any sort of environmental standard these days?

A: While we’re on the subject of airplanes, I have a confession to make. Truth be told, flying scares me silly. On a recent flight, my husband pretended he didn’t know me, except to the girl next to us who clearly knew we were married. He told her I was mentally unstable. So answering any questions about flying is not exactly easy for me.

But since I’m getting paid to — I’ll make an exception.

(On a side note however, if any of you do have any suggestions for how to get over this irrational fear, I’ll gladly accept your advice on the matter. That is one area in which I am clearly not a maven, so post your thoughts in the comments section below.)

But regarding your question, the truth is that airlines have been a little slow out of the gate with recycling programs. An NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) report a couple years ago about airline and airport recycling standards detailed the problem, saying that each year, airlines throw out enough aluminum cans to build 58 747s. That’s a lot of cans. There are major airlines that have instituted recycling programs for all those cans and paper goods used on board, though. But what if flight attendants show up with a bag full of cans to recycle at their nightly layover and that particular airport doesn’t have a recycling program? Then all those perfectly good recyclables will most likely end up in the trash. So it’s really up to the airports to change their environmental standards, too.

Some airports, like Fort Lauderdale International and Seattle-Tacoma International, are ahead of the game with creative recycling programs that are not only helping save the environment but are also saving them a bundle of cash. Sea-Tac cut disposal costs of used coffee grounds (they generate 12 tons a month) by 75 percent simply by sending the leftovers to the compost instead of to the dump. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, the world’s busiest, recently launched an airport-wide recycling program.

Still, many other airports lag behind, though the Environmental Protection Agency did recently put out a guide for all airports that want to start a recycling program but don’t know where to start.

One answer might be commingled recycling, in which all the trash and recyclables go into one machine on the plane, which then sorts the two. Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and Southwest have recently increased their recycling efforts thanks to this handy tool.

Others are getting in on the act too. American Airlines just started a cork recycling program (every bit counts, right?) and Qantas Airlines just launched its own in-flight recycling program.

Bottom line is this: Once airlines and airports realize the cost savings of recycling programs, they’re bound to get on the train, or the plane, as it were. Until then, why not take your soda can and paper with you and recycle them when you get home? Or if you’re as scared of flying as I am, just stay home.

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Inset image: EJP/Flickr

Large tease image: jlz/Flickr

See also:

Can recycling