Making aircraft cabins more sustainable is a priority for airlines looking towards achieving Net Zero, and is of growing interest for passengers. However, the complex regulatory environment can present an obstacle for enabling greener cabins as they sometimes prevent the introduction of circular economy best practices.
The solution could lie in a global and unified approach to sustainability regulations, and it may be a step closer to becoming a reality. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) aligned with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to address sustainability challenges in the aviation industry and ease the implementation of solutions.
The initial focus of the partnership is on a big talking point in the airline sector: the reduction of single-use plastics products (SUPP) used inflight, and improving circularity in the use of plastics. UNEP will have valuable input, as it is leading the global efforts to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, by the end of 2024.
According to UNEP research, more than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year, half of which is designed to be used only once. Of that, only 9% is recycled, with the pollution it generates making it extremely urgent that global action is taken.
IATA is advocating for a simplified and harmonised regulatory environment that would enable a reduction in the use of plastics, greater reuse of plastics, and more recycling of cabin waste, including plastics, where they are needed. To this end, the partnership will step-up IATA’s engagement with UNEP to ensure that aviation’s unique challenges and opportunities are represented in the upcoming international legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution.
IATA and UNEP are Already working on joint guidance titled ‘Re-thinking Plastics in Aviation’, a resource that will encompass an overview of regulations, guidance on SUPP replacement, and recommended best practices for both industry and regulators.
“World Environment Day reminds us that sustainability is our number one global challenge. Formalising IATA’s longstanding collaboration with UNEP will help airlines move even faster on improving the sustainability of the aircraft cabin. It’s critical that we achieve a harmonised global regulatory framework to enable airlines to implement more comprehensive and common circular economic solutions in all markets,” said Marie Owens Thomsen, IATA’s SVP of sustainability and chief economist. “For example, currently our hands are tied with outdated regulations focused on incineration rather than reuse and recycling. Modernising that will be a big step forward for sustainability.”
Under the partnership, IATA and UNEP also plan to work together on knowledge sharing, guidance and networking in other key sustainability challenges, including sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), sustainable finance, climate adaptation, and biodiversity conservation including sustainable tourism and preventing wildlife trafficking.
Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of UNEP’s Industry and Economy Division added, “UNEP is looking forward to working with IATA, to helping the industry transition to net zero, food waste reduction and moving away from single use and short-lived plastic products. The aviation industry can also help by creating the demand for substituting these plastics with materials that do not have a negative and social environmental footprint.”