18 plastic items for breakfast

Sunday morning and I am off on an overseas work trip. I am on a flight from Edinburgh to Minneapolis via Amsterdam and am fortunate enough to have been put in business class by my reliably employee-centric company. I am asked if I would like breakfast, and despite being somewhat ambivalent about airline dining, I say yes.

A surprisingly good breakfast of granola, rolls, ham and cheese arrives. But to my dismay, it is also probably the worst in flight dining example I have ever seen of our disposable culture – this is luxury disposable. And all of this in the post “Blue Planet” era of plastic awareness from a Dutch-based airline. A quick tally of the containers reveals the following:


  • 17 items of single use plastic, some of which are higher quality rigid containers (for the record six containers, seven lids, three pieces of cutlery, and a drinks stirrer)

  • Two thick card presentation boxes, one with an additional card lid

  • One card menu

  • One high quality large paper napkin


An additional orange plastic drinks stirrer – identical to the other one - makes the plastic tally 18 pieces in total. The redeeming feature is a ceramic mug into which my coffee is poured. Now I have got to be honest, I am not always a very good green consumer, despite working in the sustainability field and having the best of intentions. But this is surely just too much. I know this is complicated, and that you have to do a full “environmental footprint analysis” to trade off the relative merits of reusables vs disposables. I also realise that the plastic may have been made from recycled sources and may then in turn be recycled (let’s hope). But even if that is the case, can any breakfast really require this much packaging, no matter how “luxury” it strives to be? My strong hunch is that no such “footprint analysis” ever came anywhere near this particular breakfast and its assortment of boxes and lids (and let’s not forget the two drink stirrers). It makes me wonder: if I had said “no” to the meal, would it have been captured as consumer feedback and would this have eventually led to changes? I don’t know. The containers, along with the food probably, would certainly end up in the bin either way that morning. KLM, how can we help you to address this? I know it’s difficult and you may have other business class customers who are delighted by this offering, but this feels increasingly out of touch, and my eco-guilt took the shine off an otherwise great service from the fantastic cabin crew. In your own words, from your own website: “At KLM, we look further than just healthy and economically sound operations, which is why we are increasingly integrating sustainability into our processes and policy. This enables KLM to take targeted steps to reduce its environmental footprint.” Of course, I know that taking the actual flight is the much bigger deal here, and the additional carbon footprint of my business class trip is clearly what I should feel most guilty about, but that doesn’t undermine the importance of speaking up to try and make incremental improvements. So, to make progress, how about one of the following:


  • Returning to entirely reusables for in-flight dining if the total environmental footprint is actually lower?

  • Or just serving croissants and fruit from baskets?

  • Or maybe we actually just need to accept that we can’t do the full dining experience sustainably in some locations… Like an airplane, for example.  Could you save fuel and turnaround time by allowing travellers to opt out of dining at the time of booking to ensure that the plastic box is never ordered or onboarded in the first place? In return you could offer a voucher for an airport restaurant specialising in sustainable locally sourced produce, or instead offer a donation to charity? Or even a £10 reduction in the ticket price?

How can we all help you and other airlines to address this?

And, while we’re on travel, let’s talk hotels.

I don’t believe I’m the only one whose heart sinks when I arrive in a room at 10pm to find the aircon going full blast and the TV on to “welcome” me (thanks computerised booking system). What makes it worse is that I know both have been on since housekeeping left at 2pm. Maybe it is also time for an “eco option” check box at the time of room booking, resulting in a single towel in the room and refillable toiletries? Just something to consider.


#18PlasticItemsForMyBreakfast


Andrew Cave is Head of Governance & Sustainability at the Edinburgh-based investment management firm Baillie Gifford. Prior to joining Baillie Gifford in May 2015 Andrew was Chief Sustainability Officer for RBS, where he was responsible for helping to develop RBS's approach to corporate responsibility in the wake of the financial crisis.


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Written by Andrew Cave