Exhibition takes aim at travel industry’s 5.7 million tonne waste problem

Get Onboard: Reduce. Reuse. Rethink looks to change how passengers think and act while flying.


Each year an estimated 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste is generated on passenger flights. Some of that waste includes single-use plastic in meals, earphones and food waste.

A new exhibition at the Design Museum, designed and curated by consultancy PriestmanGoode, looks to raise awareness about travel’s waste problem and suggest solutions.

Get Onboard: Reduce. Reuse. Rethink will be divided into four sections.

The first looks at the meal tray, and the waste generated by an individual passenger on a 12-hour flight.

Could we have “waste free” meal trays?

Jo Rowan, the associate strategy director at PriestmanGoode, says this section will look at “cross-industry innovation” in areas such as packaging, and how these materials could be used to create a more sustainable meal tray.

One aspect that the exhibition looks at is edible elements, to create a “waste free tray service” which would “reduce weight and waste”, Rowan says.

A second area examines water waste on flights. Hydration is a “big part of wellbeing” according to Rowan, but because of infrastructure and issues of contamination, plastic used onboard cannot be recycled.

The exhibition explores what could be done in terms of service delivery and product design that would “encourage passengers to use one bottle they could refill”.

There is also a digital section, which investigates other aspects of aviation travel that could be more sustainable, from the sleep accessories and toiletries to onboard literature that airlines hand out.

The gap between flyers intentions and actions

A final area looks at innovation in material development and if it is possible to find “more sustainable ways of sourcing materials in aviation”, Rowan says.

One of the problems with tourist behaviour and travel is a difference between intention and action.

While people might be aware of environmental impact of waste, their actions might not reflect this concern.

Some of the issues that affect this is a lack of available resources during travel experience, as well as individual beliefs that one person cannot make a difference.

The display is intended to “encourage change in consumer behaviour” through creative thinking, Rowan says.

The aviation industry frequently comes under fire for its issues of sustainability. Last year, 895 million tonnes of carbon dioxide were produced by flights worldwide.

“We don’t want to stop people from flying”

“The point of the exhibition is not to stop people from flying but doing what you can within the existing framework to be more sustainable,” according to PriestmanGoode.

“Realistically people fly because it’s convenient — that’s not going to change,” says PriestmanGoode. “As designers, you have to work within the reality of the world we live in.”

Rowan says that a “knock-on effect” of reducing waste, would mean reduced weight, which would result in fewer emissions.

She says: “Together these aspects are really important ways of bringing about more sustainability.”

Get Onboard: Reduce. Reuse. Rethink runs from 12 September 2019 – January 2020 at the Design Museum, 224 Kensington High Street, W8 6AG.

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