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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Alaska’s Move to Eliminate Inflight Plastic Reveals Issues Within US Recycling Infrastructure

The airline quickly hit a roadblock in the unrecyclability of paper cups with an integrated plastic lining necessary for beverage service.

Plastic removal remains one of the top-line issues for corporations across the globe, and it’s leading to increased understanding of how much work remains to make promised swaps and reductions viable and beneficial.

In late January, Alaska Airlines announced the completion of its transition from plastic to FSC-certified paper cups for all inflight service. While it’s an industry-first milestone that the company says eliminates the need for 55 million plastic cups each year, it also revealed a much larger issue with the ability to process the replacement cups after use.

“We are literally at the starting point of that journey,” Alaska director of sustainability Scott Coughlan told Sustainable Brands®.

Following the paper

Alaska’s initial plan followed a fairly simple trajectory: Sort all inflight waste through the airline’s partner kitchens in the hub cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Anchorage and Los Angeles; then, direct coffee grounds to compost, trash to landfill and send all paper recycling to a mill for processing in partnership with local waste-management companies — which would sell the paper bundles to different mills for processing and reintroducing the paper into the product supply stream.

But as with most paper cups used for hot and cold beverage service, Alaska’s new paper cup contains an inner, plastic-based lining to help retain temperature and reduce seepage. Alaska soon discovered issues with the potential mills' ability to profitably or viably separate the lining from the paper, thus leading to a stall in the processing of the material — which would instead end up being incinerated or sent to landfill.

A common recycling roadblock

Although paper/paperboard has one of the higher recycling rates in the US at around 68 percent, that number comes from separated material. Many blended and composite materials are hard, if not impossible, to adequately recycle with current technologies — and thus, they’re often relegated to the landfill.

This also explains Alaska’s decision not to go with a biodegradable or compostable plastic cup to replace the conventional units. Many bio-based plastics are incredibly difficult to recycle in their own right — requiring specialized facilities to break them down. Considering the size and scale of Alaska’s operations, trying to commit to directing waste to such a facility just wasn’t feasible.

Promising solutions to the hot-cup-recyclability problem are imminent, thanks to industry collaborations such as the NextGen Consortium; but most are still in the pilot phase and not quite ready for market.

Image credit: Alaska Airlines

Meanwhile, the transition to paper cups builds on Alaska’s ongoing efforts to eliminate single-use plastic from its food and drink service. It began by removing plastic straws and stir sticks from inflight service in 2018 — another industry first. In 2019, the airline launched the #FillBeforeYouFly campaign to rally passengers to bring their own water bottle and fill it before they board, to reduce the need for plastic water bottles onboard. In 2021, Alaska’s partnership with Boxed Water furthered its progress; the airline says it has saved 2.2 million pounds of plastic annually by replacing plastic water bottles and plastic cups with the recyclable cartons and paper cups. And while the airline works to find a more permanent solution to the new paper cups, they cut down on overall waste by weight by roughly eight grams per cup.

Imperfect progress

Alaska’s work and research done to this point shows real progress in understanding the impact and practical considerations (and potential complications) of a major business commitment such as this one — along with the oft-overlooked, trickle-down effects through the recycling chain. While the company has yet to find a perfect solution, this interim move has revealed the next roadblock and where the next developments must be to create industrywide change.

“If we’re doing the right thing, hopefully we can help that further down the recycling stream, too,” Coughlan says.