The Overlooked Emitter: How Airline Meals Add to a Traveler’s Carbon Emissions

Air travel contributes 2.5% to global carbon emissions, with the lesser-known impact of airline meals also significant. Discover how Thrust Carbon is tackling this overlooked issue.

Written by Georgie Hutchings on 02 May, 2024

There’s something comforting, almost cushy, about being offered a beverage and a hot meal at 30,000 feet. Besides the high sodium impact from the food itself, have you ever wondered how the food and drink you have in flight contributes to your overall carbon footprint?

The Carbon Footprint of Airline Meals: What’s the Big Deal?

Estimates suggest that carbon emissions from airline meals contribute approximately 4.7 million tonnes of CO2e each year, which is equivalent to driving to the moon 111,000 times! Additionally, if we consider the emissions from on-board purchases of snacks and drinks, the disposable tableware used for meal service, and waste disposal, the actual emissions are even higher.

The journey your airline meal takes before it lands on your tray table is quite the adventure, involving the sourcing of ingredients, how they're prepared, packed, shipped, and even how leftovers are handled. Estimates suggest the impact is far from minor. The whole process is interconnected and complex, revealing just how challenging it can be to reduce emissions from something as simple as a meal served on a flight.

Spotlight on Airlines: Who's Doing it Right?

In the grand scheme of things, sustainable practices in aviation are critical. It's heartening to see that many airlines are not just adopting sustainable fuels but are also revamping their meal services to be more environmentally friendly. The shift towards offering more plant-based and vegetarian meal options is particularly exciting. These meals significantly lower carbon footprints—something worth considering next time you choose your in-flight meal.

Here are a few airlines really pushing the boundaries:

Japan Airlines offers a ‘skip meal’ option to cut down on waste and fuel consumption—simple yet effective.

Delta Airlines has successfully eliminated over 18 single-use plastic serviceware items, which annually equates to 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste. These items, which include cutlery, plates, and cups, have been replaced with biodegradable materials like bamboo and bagasse. Delta also offers a 'skip meal' option.

Emirates is reducing its food miles impressively with the world's largest vertical farm, opened in June 2022, near its hub airport. This facility uses 95% less water than conventional agriculture, while also reducing the airline's food miles.

Lufthansa is creatively reducing food waste by allowing passengers to buy unsold meals at reduced prices towards the end of a flight through a program called 'Onboard Delights Last Minute,' They also allow passengers to order meals in advance, which reduces the amount of food stock on board. As a result, food waste was reduced by 45% in 2022 compared to the previous year.

It's important to note that 20% of cabin waste comes from uneaten food, according to an audit by IATA, totaling 1.2 million tonnes annually. This results in 85,000 tonnes of CO2e if it’s all sent to landfill.

The Role of the Traveler: How Much Influence Do You Really Have?

As a traveler, you play a pivotal role. Here are some small steps you can take that will make a big difference:

- Opt for a vegetarian meal —it’s about 50% less carbon-intensive than a meat-based option.

- Consider skipping the meal if you're not keen on having breakfast at 3 a.m. and your airline offers this choice at booking.

- Support airlines that prioritize sustainability to help drive more widespread changes across the industry. Every choice you make sends a message about the values you want the industry to uphold.

The Big Picture: How Significant are Meal Emissions in Air Travel?

Though meal-related emissions might seem small on a per-flight basis, their cumulative effect is anything but trivial. A one-way economy flight from JFK to LHR, on average, emits 1.212 tCO2e per passenger. In contrast, the combined emissions from a meal, snack, and non-alcoholic drink served onboard amount to only 0.00692 tCO2e, accounting for just 0.57% of the total flight emissions. While this percentage may seem negligible on an individual scale, the global cumulative impact of airline meal emissions is far from trivial.

While we’re here, let’s recap a few of the other ways you can significantly reduce your footprint while flying:

- Opt for direct flights, which are usually more fuel-efficient due to fewer take-offs and landings.

- Consider downgrading from business to economy class; such a change can cut your carbon emissions by up to 65%.

- Reduce your baggage weight; each extra kilogram of luggage necessitates additional fuel consumption.

- For shorter distances, replace plane travel with more energy-efficient modes like rail, which can slash your carbon emissions by 84%.

Thrust Carbon Is Leading the Industry’s Understanding of Meal Emissions

Recently announced, Thrust Carbon is the first-ever company to introduce carbon emissions data specifically for meals served to business travelers on flights, automating the process for streamlined, easy reporting. This innovative approach empowers users to meticulously document emissions, tailored to the travel class, including detailed breakdowns for full meals, snacks (whether hot or cold), breakfast varieties, and beverages (alcoholic or non-alcoholic, hot). This granularity ensures that every aspect of in-flight dining is accounted for, providing unparalleled accuracy in carbon footprint assessment. Thrust Carbon stands alone in offering this dataset for airlines, highlighting approximately 1% of travel program emissions previously unreported.

If your company is looking to incorporate meal emissions into your carbon reporting, Thrust Carbon is leading the way with precise, detailed emissions data. Get in touch to learn how you can integrate this critical element into your environmental strategy and make your travel program more sustainable.

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