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A guide to sustainable travel and eco-friendly flights

Simple ways you can shrink your carbon footprint in the air.

Did you know that by choosing to fly on a newer aeroplane you're helping cut CO2 emissions by up to 25%? Or that $1.90 is all it costs to offset the carbon from your return flight between Melbourne and Sydney?

Small changes like these to your travel habits can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. And while honestly, the best way to curb those emissions is by flying less, we understand that's not the most realistic solution.

So what can you do? Well, get ready to verse yourself in carbon emissions and airline waste and how you can minimise your impact, for a start. While it sounds complicated we promise it's easier than you think.

So if you're ready for more, then pull up your chair and buckle up as we take you through your greener choices in the air.

Carbon emissions

CO2 or carbon emissions are directly related to the greenhouse effect and global warming. So reducing them is imperative to protecting the environment.

These emissions are everywhere during the flight process, from the energy burned to build an aircraft to the fuel burned to fly.

To give you an idea of just how much pollution is generated by air travel, Qantas and its low-cost carrier Jetstar reported emitting 12.5 million tonnes of CO2 in the 2019 financial year.

The good news is that airlines are conscious of these sky-high numbers and are working to lessen their impact.

What are airlines doing to reduce carbon emissions?

Upgrading to eco-friendlier aircraft and using more efficient fuels are 2 of the most common changes airlines are making to cull carbon emissions.

Airplane engineers working at an airplane.

Sustainable aircraft

Thanks to advancements in aircraft technology, newer planes such as the A321Neo, A350 XWB and Dreamliner 787 produce 25% lower emissions than their predecessors.

To achieve this, they've upgraded to engines that burn up to 25% less fuel, aerodynamic wings that cause less fuel-sucking drag and lightweight materials such as paints that require less maintenance.

Some airlines that currently own eco-friendly planes are:

A321NeoVirgin Australia, Hawaiian Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Jetstar, Qantas
A350Air New Zealand, SAS, Qatar Airways, LATAM, Vietnam Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines
Dreamliner 787Jetstar, Qantas, Scoot, Air New Zealand, United Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Air Canada, Air India, American Airlines, ANA, Etihad Airways, JAL, Korean Air, LATAM, Royal Brunei, Shanghai Airlines.

Now all this information is good and handy, but we understand that it's not practical to dictate our travels by aircraft type.

However, the good news is that you can choose to fly sustainably without becoming an aircraft aficionado. Flight comparison site Skyscanner calculates carbon-efficient fares by aircraft type, seat capacity and number of stops per flight.

Look out for the "Greener Choice" symbol to pinpoint these lower emission flights.

Screenshot of a Skyscanner flight with a greener choice symbol.

Sustainable fuel practices

Fuel combustion is a massive player in the carbon game. Airlines are combating these emissions through more fuel-efficient systems and sustainable fuels.

As we mentioned earlier, reducing drag is one way to conserve fuel. Another is through improved flight planning. Planes such as Fiji Airways' A350 now use advanced navigational systems to monitor weather conditions to determine fuel-efficient flight paths.

Qantas and Jetstar are employing similar systems across their aircraft.

As for fuels, airlines are moving away from petroleum-based options and towards sustainable, natural biofuels. These are produced from biomass like seaweed, vegetable oils, trees and organic waste and produce less carbon than their traditional forms.

Qantas, Virgin Australia, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have all tested and trialled using biofuels.

What can I do to reduce my carbon emissions in the air?

That's a lot of action on the airlines' side of things, but how you can fly greener? Well, simple ways you can stamp out your carbon footprint while flying include:

Wind farm in Albany Western Australia.

Purchasing carbon offsets

Every passenger on a plane creates a carbon footprint. You can't get past this. But the size of your footprint depends on the journey length, your seat size and the plane's seat load.

To give you an idea of numbers, Carbon Neutral calculates that an economy seat on a short-haul return journey such as Melbourne–Sydney emits 115kgs of carbon per person.

The numbers sound massive, but all it takes is less than $2 to offset this and fly carbon neutral.

Now if you've heard the terms "carbon offset" and "carbon neutral" before but aren't quite sure what they mean, here's a quick rundown. They describe a contribution, often monetary, that either reduces (offset) or balances out (neutral) your flight emissions.

While this amount is transacted by the airline it doesn't go directly to it. Instead, it's used to purchase carbon offsets from projects that aim to remove or balance out carbon emissions. These projects could include clean energy technologies such as a wind farm or the restoration or protection of forests that absorb carbon dioxide.

While some airlines let you choose the amount you contribute, it's more common for them to request a donation equal to what it costs to fly carbon neutral.

Australia's Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar airlines let you offset your carbon emissions in full during the booking process.

Tigerair carbon offsets purchase screenshot.

If your airline doesn't offer an offset you can make a personal contribution through sites like Greenfleet and Carbon Neutral.

Not all carbon credits are good credits

Something to be wary of when purchasing credits or offsets is that there are good and bad ones. Bad credits may charge a high cost for a low-quality offset.

An easy way to ensure you're purchasing credible offsets is by looking for the Australian Government's carbon neutral certification. This is given to products and companies that measure and report their carbon neutral status.

Something else to look out for is where your credits go. At times, airlines may partner with projects that reduce carbon in another part of the world than your flight. For example, you could fly across Australia but your offset may go to the Peruvian Amazon.

Virgin Australia in particular is dedicated to local conservation. It supports Tasmanian forests, the South East Fire Management program and Greening Australia.

If your flight doesn't contribute to local projects, you can purchase credits that directly benefit the space in the world you're travelling in. Australian sites you can do this through are:

Flying long-haul and direct

Your journey length and itinerary play a fundamental part in the size of your carbon footprint. Generally the longer and more direct the flight, the more eco-friendly your journey.

This is because cruising through the skies burns less fuel than other parts of the journey. Take for example the take-off and landing cycle. According to a NASA report this accounts for 25% of the flight's emissions.

Therefore a longer flight, which spends hours cruising, burns less fuel per kilometre than a shorter flight that spends minutes in the air.

For short journeys, a great option is to travel by train or coach as they're much more carbon-efficient. As is opting to fly direct instead of bumping through multiple stops to get to your destination.

Emissions from different modes of transport.

Source: BBC

Flying on a fuller plane, in economy

Whether a flight takes off with 10 passengers or with 100 it still burns a considerable amount of fuel over its course. So the more passengers on a flight, the smaller the emissions per person.

True, it's difficult to only travel on flights near capacity and most travellers would likely prefer a spare seat beside them. But another way you can decrease your travel footprint is by booking an economy seat.

Yup, a seat in that humble piece of the plane is up to 4 times more eco-friendly than one in the pointy end. That's because first and business class seats account for more space. And more space accounts for a larger portion of the plane's pollution.

Travelling light

On top of saving some dosh by not bringing checked luggage (well, at least when it comes to low-cost carriers), by lightening the load you bring on board, you're lessening your carbon emissions.

That's because the heavier the craft, the more fuel is burned to move it. This is another reason aeroplanes are moving towards lighter paints and galleys. Before you leave, make a packing list and stick to it to avoid overpacking as well as excess fuel use.

Qantas Green tier

In an effort to encourage frequent flyers to make more sustainable choices, Qantas introduced a new "green" tier for members in early 2022.

To earn it, you have to complete 5 activities. This includes completing a sustainability quiz on the Qantas Wellbeing app, offsetting your flight and donating points to a planet-friendly charity or project.

Once done, you'll be rewarded with your choice of 10,000 Qantas points or 50 status credits. If neither appeal, you can opt to provide an extra 3 tonnes of carbon offset credits instead.

Single-use plastics

From the plastic wrapped around your blanket to the plastic cutlery and cups, your onboard experience is riddled with unsustainable products.

In fact, Qantas has reported that a flight from Sydney to Adelaide produces a massive 34 kilograms of waste. Annually that equates to 150 tonnes per year.

True, many of these elements, such as the plastic wrap around your earphones and heat-resistant containers for food preparation are imperative to maintaining a healthy onboard environment.

However, this doesn't mean airlines can't provide a more eco-friendly or even a zero-waste flight.

What are airlines doing to create less waste on board?

Common ways airlines are combating single-use plastic waste is by replacing it with biodegradable products or eliminating it altogether.

In 2019, Qantas announced an addition to its sustainability efforts by introducing the Bowerbird Project. This project aims to eliminate 100 million single-use plastics, which is equal to 75% of waste, by the end of 2021.

Qantas Zero Waste Feature Image

In 2019, Qantas proved that waste-free air travel was possible by taking to the skies for the world's first zero-waste flight. It replaced paper tags with reusable baggage tags, food was delivered in BioPak cartons made from sugar cane pulp, cutlery was made from corn starch and drinks were served in paper cups. All these were biodegradable with the BioPaks taking 8 weeks to compost into soil.

Virgin Australia hasn't been quiet about sustainability either. In 2018, it eliminated over 7 million plastics by replacing plastic straws and stirrers with paper and bamboo across its planes and lounges.

In 2019, it took plastic reduction further by becoming the first airline to offer bio-based onboard cutlery. It also removed single-use plastic packaging from amenity kits, business class pyjamas, colouring books and cleaning kits.

On top of its recycling efforts, Virgin rescues over 106,000kgs of food waste annually by donating to OzHarvest, repurposes amenity kits and pyjamas through MNH Sustainable Cabin Services and recycles uniforms by donating them to Dress For Success in New Zealand.

Further afield, Air New Zealand is using compostable cups made from paper and corn and Etihad has trialled flying single-use-plastic-free on a long-haul journey. To achieve this, over 95 different items were replaced or removed from the cabin. Those plastics accounted for 50 kilograms of waste. While this was an experiment, Etihad intends to remove 80% of single-use plastics by 2022.

What can I do to be create less waste on board and on the ground?

Alongside airlines' efforts to be plastic-free you too can minimise your waste on board as well as at the airport by:

Bringing reusable bottles, cups and cutlery

Planning ahead when you are packing is key. Bring your own bottle to fill up at the bubbler instead of purchasing one at the airport and pack your reusable coffee cups as airlines, including Air New Zealand and Cebu Pacific, now encourage you to use these on board. As an added step, bring your own cutlery for meals.

It's a small change but every cup and cutlery set rejected is one less in landfill. And if you're on a long-haul flight sporting several meal services this adds up.

At the airport try to avoid purchasing food that comes in plastic packaging. Also, don't forget to dispose of your food in the correct bin afterwards.

Man holding a reusable cup at the airport.

Bring your own headphones and blanket

Your in-seat headphones and blanket might feel like a bonus, but they're also covered in plastic which, once removed, is likely headed for the tip.

By bringing your own you'll not only save that plastic wrap from landfill, but you'll also save on resources used to repurpose or clean them.

Go digital

Long gone is the need for a paper ticket as Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia have all gone mobile.

When you check in online, instead of printing out your ticket, save paper and have it sent to you by SMS or email. Alternatively you can download the airline's app which stores your flight details and boarding pass for you to show at the gate.

On board, airlines are ditching paper-based pilot manuals and in-flight magazines for digital copies.

On the ground: Energy and water reduction

The flight is only one element of the entire carbon emission journey. On the ground, energy and water is used in aircraft maintenance, cooling towers and at the airline's headquarters.

Despite being a quieter focus for airlines and airports, more efficient energy and waste practices are being slowly rolled out.

What are airlines and airports doing to reduce on-ground waste?

Ever conscious of the need to minimise pollution across their entire operations, airlines and airports have employed emerging technologies to become more sustainable.

Low-energy lighting and water-efficient fixtures are becoming a standard across offices, lounges and hangers. As is the eradication of single-use plastics.

Airports in Australia, and worldwide, are also keeping a close eye on their energy, water and waste.

Brisbane Airport's fleet of electric buses.

To reduce energy usage, they are turning to renewable sources. Brisbane Airport has successfully decreased emissions by 7,000 tonnes a year through its solar panel system while Sydney Airport has entered into a power agreement to source 75% of its energy from renewable sources.

Another trend is the deployment of a 100% electric bus fleet. Brisbane, Sydney, Amsterdam, Glasgow and Heathrow airports, to name a few, have begun rolling these out. According to Brisbane Airport a full fleet can remove 250 tonnes of carbon annually.

Food and waste reduction is a slower burn and is mostly in the trial stages. Some ways airports are addressing this is by redistributing food via programs such as OzHarvest (Brisbane Airport), introducing appropriately labelled bins and imposing plastic straw and single-use plastic bag bans (Sydney Airport).

The future of sustainable air travel

The future is looking bright as Australians are becoming ever-more eco-conscious. In fact, Finder's Consumer Sentiment Tracker found that 65% of Australians are currently concerned about their carbon footprint.

It's not all talk either as Skyscanner has noted that 1 in 10 flights booked through it are eco-friendly. This is only bound to increase as time goes on.

As is airlines' and airports' commitment towards more sustainable practices. As technology advances, we can no doubt expect an increase in low-emission fleets and a decrease in single-use plastics from them. But what else can we look forward to?

  • More low emission fuels. Biofuels are expensive. But biojet fuels, which are a mix of biofuel and traditional jet fuel, are an economic low-emission alternative. They're currently being trialled at Brisbane Airport. Australian farmers are also working with agricultural companies to grow our country's first commercial aviation biofuel seed crop.
  • More airlines updating their fleets. As more low-emission craft appear, airlines will begin to decommission old unsustainable planes for newer, more efficient ones.
  • Electric or hybrid aeroplanes. As cars and buses move away from traditional fuels, planes do too. While small electric aircraft have already taken flight in limited numbers, solutions for large commercial craft are still up in the air. What's more likely to arrive are hybird-electric planes which produce less fuel burn than current aircraft.

Air New Zealand's Twiice cups.

  • Zero-waste cups and cutlery. Instead of exchanging plastic products for biodegradable or recyclable ones, the future could be zero-waste or edibles products. Air New Zealand is trialling edible biscotti coffee cups while PriestmanGoode has designed aeroplane trays made from coffee grounds, algae, banana leaf and coconut wood that it's proposing to airlines.
  • Organic waste bins. We expect organic bins will be added at airports alongside recycling and general waste bins. Sydney Airport trialled this in 2018 and saw a 20% reduction of landfill waste.

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