DUBAI: How about an altogether different eating experience at 35,000 feet? As you are served your meal by a smiling cabin crew, you receive your meal on a food tray made from coffee grounds, cutlery from bamboo or coconut wood, cups made from wafer (the kind you eat), glasses lined with algae and salads and side dishes resting on banana leaf? Will your eating experience be enhanced in direct proportion to the easing of your conscience as, a) there will be no plastic wastage being generated, and b), all the service ware, being fully compostable, will help offset, to some degree, the carbon footprint of flying?

The efforts to combat the plastic waste generated by airlines is a growing concern. Although there is no one particular entity that is toting up the numbers in this area, there are reliable statistics from certain quarters that point to the scale of the problem. According to the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing about 300 airlines, its small study conducted at Heathrow Airport in London estimated that airlines generated about 6.7 million tonnes of cabin waste last year. With a booming tourism industry and an growing demand for low-cost airlines, that number could double in the next decade, say experts.

“It’s a relatively limited sample at this stage,” Chris Goater, a spokesman for the trade association, told the Washington Post. IATA, the airline trade association, said the rules governing international catering waste — which involve a complex set of international and country-specific regulations meant to prevent the spread of disease — should be reconsidered to increase recycling rates.

While all cabin waste is subject to the regulations of the country in which the plane lands, some European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, have imposed additional measures to protect agriculture. This means that even untouched food and drink, which, according to IATA estimates, makes up about 20 per cent of total airline waste, ends up in landfills or is incinerated.

According to Michale Gill, IATA’s director of aviation environment: “We’ve developed a lot of guidance to airlines to deal with the issue of cabin waste. But airlines cannot solve the issue on their own.”

Megan Epler Wood, author of ‘Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet’ and the director of Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative says the push for change requires collaboration among airlines, local authorities and airports. And designers, we may add.

One British design firm is in the vanguard of this change. The London-based design firm, PriestmanGoode has been involved with the aviation sector for over 20 years. In that time, it has developed cabin interiors, service items, ground services, lounges and complete aircraft for a range of airlines and manufacturers. It has also been experimenting with materials that may potentially revolutionise the way in which airline meals are packed, thus contributing significantly to reducing plastic waste. The firm is showcasing its innovative products for in-flight meals made from renewable materials such as algae, coffee grounds, banana leaves and coconut wood at the “Get Onboard: Reduce.Reuse.Rethink,” exhibition that opened last month at the Design Museum in London.

In an exclusive email interview with Gulf News, Jo Rowan, associate strategy director of PriestmanGoode, shared the reasons why the firm embarked on this path.

“Plastic is used for a number of reasons,” said Rowan. “It’s hygienic, lightweight, cheap, can withstand different temperatures, etc. So we had to find materials that would meet the same requirements. There is no perfect solution at the moment, so instead of looking for one single new material that could do everything, we looked to the catering industries and developments in food safe materials to find a combination of materials, alternatives to plastic that we could explore instead.”

The materials, says Rowan, have been specifically chosen as they meet the requirements for the various foods they contain, including being able to hold hot and cold items at various temperatures. “Using by-products from existing industries means you’re able to minimise your carbon footprint, as well as make use of materials that would otherwise be wasted,” she says. They also need to be light, because the more weight on an aircraft, the higher the fuel emissions.

Of course, there is always the other side to the coin. Which in this case is the cost factor for producing eco-friendly alternatives. Plastic, after all, is cheap to manufacture. “We’re under no illusion that greener solutions are more expensive at the moment,” says Rowan. “As more sustainable materials scale up, the costs for these will go down,” says Rowan.

There is also the cost of dealing with the waste. “Rethinking the design of service items can help reduce the cost of waste disposal; while your initial investment seems higher, the cost may end up being the same if you look at the whole life cycle of the products and service items,” says Rowan.

She stresses on the importance of designers challenging the status quo. “What allows us to talk about this issue is because we know it, we understand it, and we work across the whole supply chain. So our innovations are rooted in the practicality of the heavily regulated aviation industry.”

The exhibition’s impact has been incredible, says Rowan. “We’ve had really great responses from the museum, the public, the media and the industry. There is obviously a lot of appetite for innovation. Consumers are also becoming increasingly aware of their behaviour in every day life, and being able to see the impact of travel behaviour as well as suggestions for improvements seems to have really struck a chord with the public. The fact we’ve received so much interest for the exhibition shows that design is a powerful tool in approaching a much talked about topic with tangible solutions, even at this conceptual stage.”

She says the firm is currently in talks with both airlines and suppliers, and is looking at ways in which it might start implementing some of its initial concepts. The goal, Rowan says, is “getting people to think about the way that they travel and also getting airlines and the service providers to think about what they offer”.

(Get Onboard: Reduce.Reuse.Rethink at Design Museum London runs through till February end, 2020).

The eco-friendly materials by PriestmanGoode that could soon take to the skies:


Amongst the fastest growing organisms on the planet, algae is abundant, can generate both hard and soft material qualities. The innate semi-transparency of the material feels fresh and enables the passenger to see the food contained within.


A great alternative to a traditional plastic lid. It is edible and if not eaten, it will biodegrade along with other organic matter.

Wheat Bran

Pressed wheat bran was chosen for its versatility. Oven-safe, oil-and water-resistant, it is suitable for hot and cold dishes. As the dishes are technically edible, they will biodegrade as any other organic waste item would.

Coconut wood

Coconut palm wood is usually burned as a waste by-product of coconut farming. 60 per cent of small-scale coconut farmers live on or below the poverty line. By selling the palm wood instead of burning it, it provides a valuable source of extra income to these farmers and also supports local artisans. It is naturally very hard, has a smooth finish, is less absorbent and user-friendly.

Coffee Grounds

Made from a durable blend of coffee grounds and lignin (plant-derived binder) the meal tray itself is a rotable part, meaning that it can be continually reused. When its life span is done, it can be commercially composted.

Rice Husk

Made from discarded rice husks. The thin removable liners made from algae allow both hot and cold beverages to be drunk from the same cup without cross contamination. The cups can be washed and reused and the liners will quickly biodegrade.


The meal tray’s lid is made from bamboo, a renewable resource, oven-safe and compostable.

(Information courtesy: PriestmanGoode)