January 24, 2017
DEAR PASSENGER: Look, I know it’s a long flight, and I realize that, at least in your aggrieved mind, commercial air carriers are the most malevolent entities the universe has ever known, fully deserving of your disrespect. But must you? Must you throw your garbage all over the floor? I realize that you’re seated for an extended period of time in cramped quarters, and it’s not like there’s a waste receptacle at every seat. But I’m afraid that’s not a good enough excuse for, say, leaving leaky Chinese food cartons or a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich under your feet.
It’s a sobering spectacle, standing at the forward bulkhead and looking down the aisles once the passengers have disembarked. Arriving from Europe or the West Coast, the cabin of my 767 looks like a typhoon has blown through it. I’ve seen an entire can of Pringles mashed into the floor like sawdust. I’ve seen a mixture of chips and soda trampled and congealed into a kind of carpet-eating concrete. There are newspapers, cups, cans, plastic wrappers of every conceivable color and size, candy, gum, cookies, apple cores, and even sullied diapers, thrown under seats or crammed into pockets. By the time the cleaners have finished, they’ll have stuffed several oversized bags full of waste.
Thousands of long-haul flights operate every day, and each leaves hundreds of pounds of trash in its wake. (Much of this refuse is recyclable; unfortunately, regulations require all garbage be incinerated when a flight is coming from overseas). The amount of litter seems to be more or less proportional to the time spent aloft, but it can be astonishing even after a short flight. The sheer volume of it is depressing enough; the fact that some people are obnoxious enough to dump it on the floor makes it worse.
Airlines, for their part, could and should enact a few sensible, and cheap, countermeasures:
1. Put a lunch-sized, recyclable paper or plastic trash bag in each seat-back pocket. Or, if that itself is deemed too wasteful, supply a bag for each block of seats, to be shared.
2. Have the cabin crew make more frequent trash collection runs, especially toward the end of flight, accompanied by a PA announcement. Some carriers already do this; alas, many flyers find it easier to simply dump their crap on the floor. Maybe that PA announcement needs to be a little more specific? “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be coming down the aisle to collect any items you wish to discard. Please do us a favor and not leave your trash under your seat.”
3. Cut down on the insane amount of plastic that accompanies the typical inflight meal (cellophane wrappers, cups, etc.).
(I was going to suggest, too, that carriers maybe get away from the types of snacks that are, by their nature, messy. Things like peanuts, chips and mini-pretzels are all but destined for the carpet and seat tracks. But then, what are the alternatives? Carrots?)
As a result of any or all of these ideas, interiors would be less soiled, while turnaround times would be quicker and require less labor. I’ve watched cleaning crews spend a better part of an hour picking up trash after a long flight. Am I wrong, or would a few pennies per plane save an airline millions in annual cleaning costs? Plus you’d have a more attractive product.
Until then, here’s a tip: In a pinch, an airsickness bag might be too small for cans, but it otherwise makes a semi-useful trash container. (Just remember, though, that you’re taking it away from the next person). Or, better, if you’re up in first or business class, your blanket or duvet frequently comes wrapped in a plastic sheathing that, if carefully removed, makes for a roomy receptacle.
Note: portions of this post ran previously in the magazine SALON.