Published 1 year ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Alaska Airlines
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
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
“We are literally at the starting point of that journey,” Alaska director of
sustainability Scott Coughlan
told Sustainable Brands®.
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.
Although paper/paperboard has one of the higher recycling rates in the US at
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
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
but most are still in the pilot
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
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
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
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
“If we’re doing the right thing, hopefully we can help that further down the
recycling stream, too,” Coughlan says.
Published Feb 8, 2023 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Geoff is a freelance journalist and copywriter focused on making the world a better place through compelling copy. He covers everything from apparel to travel while helping brands worldwide craft their messaging. In addition to Sustainable Brands, he's currently a contributor at Penta, AskMen.com, Field Mag and many others. You can check out more of his work at geoffnudelman.com.