10 ideas for cutting down airline food waste / by Chris W. Hubbard


My Asiana Air flight from Soul to Chicago was surprisingly pleasant. I have to admit, I didn’t expect it. When I fly, I go for the cheapest flights available, especially from Taiwan to the US—tickets can easily cost over $1,000us. I had never heard of Asiana Air and was a bit worried. Would I be stuck in a cargo-cage situation for 20 or more hours? Would there be heat? What corners had been cut? What unpleasant surprises awaited me? Is this a plane, or did I book a boat? Asiana Air turned out to be none of those things. It was as nice a ride as any I guess. The plane looked new, had a simple, yet attractive logo that as a designer I could appreciate. The attendants on board were extremely friendly and attractive. They even had free toothbrushes and toothpaste in the bathrooms—a life saver for me, and beside me for the next 14-hours. And of course, they served a steady stream of delicious food, snacks, and beverages to keep us all from completely losing our minds. 

I was particularly impressed with the packaging of the meals, especially the lunch they served almost immediately after boarding. (get them sedated asap ladies!) It was clear that a lot of thought and creative energy was put into these meal packs. A team of talented designers did a good job with the whole look and feel of the presentation. As a customer, I appreciate it. As a budget traveler, I'm impressed. However, before I could finish appreciating the beautiful design of the meal, I was struck by just how much packaging was involved in a relatively minuscule meal. literally, everything was packaged and then packaged in another package. Inside the well-designed box, was another plastic box with some food, some other food items, again in their own little plastic packages. Of course, there's the package with utensils, inside of which is even more little packages with condiments—salts and peppers and napkins all in yet more little plastic bags. Even the water comes in a tiny package. But that's to be expected.

This amount of packaging waste for a single meal completely strips away any of the good impressions I might have for such an insignificant experience. 

For me, it starts to border on criminal. The heaping pile of garbage produced, by me alone, is unacceptable, regardless of how nice the packaging looks. It really takes away all the joy I could be having from the experience. I then imagine the whole plane, with its hundred-plus passengers, producing endless heaps of waste as a steady stream of little meals keeps us occupied during our 14-hour flight to Chicago.

There's got to be a much better way to do this, seriously. With global knowledge of things like the "ocean garbage patch," producing epic amounts of waste on board transatlantic flights is ridiculous. Not because it's happening. I get it. People need meals, there are sanitation issues, and efficiency issues, and budget issues. I can hear the executives explaining it all away to me. But really, it's ridiculous because it's just not necessary. It can't be. Are there no other ideas? Nobody working on this? Is this a big market opportunity? Meals that don't produce extravagant amounts of waste? People like Elon Musk are building planes to fly to Mars, and we can't serve a meal without a hundred tiny plastic bags?  Fine. What can I come up with then? Maybe there are no better ideas. But here's my go at it.

Here are 10 ideas for reducing meal waste aboard airlines:


  1. Serve food buffet style

    1. The little cart comes down the aisle, and scoops selections onto the plate you brought with you. (Yeah, and that you clean yourself cause you ate the food)

  2. Give a discount to people who bring their own utensils and food containers.

    1. That's an extension of idea one.

  3. Allow people to “rent” meal kits before getting on the plane, then ask passengers to wash them afterward in exchange for their money back.

    1. At one point in time the idea of you, as a customer, eating your burger and then cleaning up your waste before leaving sounded crazy. Now it doesn't even phase anyone. Take it a bit further. Clean up your own plates.

  4. Only serve food that doesn't require wrappings anyways. Apples, bananas. Burritos. 

  5. Pass out bowls, and one spoon, at the beginning of the flights and only serve food into that bowl.

    1. Again, buffet idea I guess.

  6. Make the tray in front of seats a kind of permanent food plate, serve food directly onto that. Give out wet wipes so passengers can clean it after. ( This would ensure people eat all their food AND do a good job cleaning it up.

    1. Buffet style, again.

  7. Only serve sandwiches. These could be wrapped in a simple bio-degradable paper. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Clean and easy.

    1. And everyone LOVES sandwiches. If they don't they shouldn't fly.

  8. Build a dining room on the plane. serve customers 20 at a time. This would allow them to get up and move a bit and meet others on a long flight. This is a totally unrealistic idea but wouldn’t it be cool?

    1. It might be a crazy idea, but they could do it. They can afford it.

  9. Only serve meal “pills.” Yeah, let's get back to the 2001 space odyssey vision. Whatever happened to that anyways? Where are all the meal pills? 

  10. Only serve liquid meals. Smoothies, soups, etc. All passengers have a nice airline issued beverage bottle for these that they return after the flight. Or not. One wasted cup per person is about 90% less waste then what they have going on now. 

There you go. There has to be something in there somewhere. I can come up with more of these, all day long. Tell your friend at the airline company to give me a call. I have plenty more ideas. Something has to be done. Call me.