1705477250 Airplane waste other pollution –

Airplane waste, other pollution –

A Health Canada directive requires the destruction of all waste generated by aircraft that land in Canada. Airlines, airports and environmentalists are calling for changes to allow recycling.

An aluminum can, a paper cup, a plastic plate… You wouldn't think to throw these items in the trash anymore since sorting items is so ingrained in Canadians' routine. But airlines are required to do this under a federal directive from 2002.

These international waste regulations are administered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). As the name suggests, it is intended to cover waste from international flights landing at a Canadian airport.

Trash bags.

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Garbage bags collected in the cabin of an airplane that need to be buried or burned.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

However, since the risk of contact with other waste cannot be ruled out, the regulation usually also applies to domestic flights.

It is estimated that the amount of international waste will reach 5.7 million tons worldwide by 2024. That's equivalent to what all Quebecers throw in the trash every year.

Agricultural terrorism agent

The aim of the regulation is initially to prevent environmental pollution.

“I don't think Canada wants to experience an episode of African swine fever or foot-and-mouth disease that would have devastating consequences for the country's economy and animal health,” says Marie-Lou Gaucher of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Montreal University.

A woman looks ahead.

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Marie-Lou Gaucher, chair of meat safety at the University of Montreal, says the federal directive is crucial but can be relaxed.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

Yes, the measure may seem strict, said the chair of meat safety research, but it is not excessive.

Health Canada also alarmingly describes the possibility of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that would be a national disaster: Foot-and-mouth disease must also be considered as a possible trigger for agricultural terrorism.

System deficiencies

Anything that may have come into contact with food on board the aircraft will therefore suffer the same fate upon arrival on Canadian soil: systematic destruction, either by burning or by burying.

But there are shortcomings. Nothing stops a traveler from taking their entire food tray home and then deciding to compost and recycle the contents.

A man looks ahead.  Behind it, outside, is a plane.

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Martin Massé, vice-president of Aéroports de Montréal, proposes a pilot project on aluminum recycling.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

First of all, we understand that we are concerned about the safety and health of Canadians and we do not question this, assures Martin Massé, vice-president of sustainable development at Aéroports de Montréal.

What we are saying, on the other hand, is that from the moment the item is transported, depending on whether it is transported by the passenger or by the catering service, [subit] different treatment, at this point we are clearly not achieving the goal.

According to a 2018 report prepared for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), there is no precedent in the world where a virus transmitted through waste from abroad has caused an outbreak.

Canada is one of the countries in the world with the strictest rules, says Nicolas Jammes, deputy director of sustainability at IATA.


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It is estimated that the amount of international waste will reach 5.7 million tons worldwide by 2024.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

Similar but less restrictive regulations apply in the European Union, New Zealand and the United States.

IATA, which brings together nearly 300 airlines, aims to enable its members to recycle what is recyclable and reuse what is reusable, while keeping the risk of contamination close to zero.

6000 tons per year in Montreal

Once waste has been collected from the aircraft by the airline's cleaning crews or caterer, protocol requires that it takes the shortest route to destruction.

They are cremated in Toronto and Vancouver. In Montreal, the Terrebonne landfill has to prepare a special trench for them in their garbage pile.

“The truck dumps its international waste and we fill the ditch with local waste, without the machines coming into direct contact with the international waste,” explains Michèle-Odile Geoffroy, environmental manager at Enviro-Connexions.

Landfill with garbage and trucks, seen from above.

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A special trench is dug for international waste, which is then covered with a layer of local waste.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

The same ballet is repeated four times a week. According to Aéroports de Montréal, 6,000 tons of trash are buried every year.

“It's a regulation that is a little abusive and unusual today,” says Karel Ménard, general director of the Quebec Common Front for Ecological Waste Management.

He describes air transport as one of the most polluting industries of all, but joins airlines in calling for a review that would make the sector a little more environmentally friendly.

Look what we give you. Everything is overflowing: salt, pepper, juice, everything. And it goes straight to the landfill. So I think we're ripe to rethink our approach in Canada and perhaps relax these somewhat gargantuan regulations.

Airplane waste other pollution –5:52

The report by Mathieu Prost.

A pilot project on aluminum?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency plans to update the policy during 2025 without mentioning the possibility of recycling. Voices are now becoming louder calling for short-term action.

Let's at least start with a pilot project, argues Martin Massé from ADM. For example on cans of soft drinks.

There is no need to convince Danielle Coudé, who has chosen the cause at Alu Québec. The recovery and recycling coordinator considers it scandalous that metals, including aluminum, are found [enfouis].

“We agree that these will not be huge deposits, but any initiative of this kind will help reduce the dumping of metals,” she says.

A woman looks ahead.

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Danielle Coudé, recycling coordinator for Alu Québec, considers the burying of an infinitely recyclable metal to be “scandalous.”

Photo: Radio-Canada / Mathieu Prost

To be recycled, bales of aluminum cans must be melted. The melting point of aluminum is around 700 degrees Celsius.

It is practically the same as going to the incinerator, analyzes Marie-Lou Gaucher, who occasionally works with the ACIA.

It is impossible for bacteria to survive at such temperatures. If this waste follows a recognized pathway that limits the associated exposure risks, I think that would be acceptable, she judges.

Until then, the airy circular economy will remain condemned to landfill.

International waste in a few numbers

  • 1.43 kg per passenger per flight
  • 6.4 million tons in 2019
  • 3.1 million tons in 2020
  • 5.7 million tons in 2024 (estimate)
  • 20% of waste is uneaten food.

Source: IATA