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American Airlines Steps Up Recycling Efforts

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Jeff Ray
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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - The Wings Foundation is a fundraising organization of American Airlines flight attendants who operate a Disaster Relief Fund to help out those who lose their homes to the effects of natural disasters. Just last year, they raised $90,000 by recycling aluminum cans used by airline passengers. That amount of aluminum is equal to what is used to make four 737 aircrafts.

While the recycling program does not extend to all cities where American Airlines flies, it does include the big hubs – Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. If a flight is ending at one of those hub cities, flight attendants will actually hold onto the cans during the day so that they can be recycled.

It should be noted that flight attendants are doing the separating. They go down the aisle with trash carts and rack up empty cans into trays. They usually get four or five can trays on a typical flight.

Sky Chef is the company that holds the catering contract with American Airlines at DFW International Airport, and they process all of the food waste at their catering facility. Carts from the airplanes are rolled away and sent directly to this facility. Sky Chef then pulls out the cans, crushes them and sells the scrap.

The profits are split between Sky Chef and the Wings Foundation.

CBS 11 News spoke with some flight attendants who were confident that they collect 100 percent of all cans used in-flight. Aluminum cans are by far the most valuable item in the waste stream – you can get about 55 cents for a pound of crushed cans. But it is still just a pile of cans.

The trash from a plane is chock full of recyclable products. An estimated four million little plastic cups are used each day. Last year in the United States, airlines carried 618 million people around the country. Each person generates about 1.3 pounds of trash on a flight. (The average American home generates about 4.4 pounds of trash per day.) This works out to be about 400,000 tons of trash.

The nonprofit group Green America estimates that only about 20 percent of waste from a plane is recycled.

There are some obstacles on the road to recycling. The effort has to be coordinated with two partners – the people who have the catering contract and those who run the airport. In a business run with limited profit, and on a tight schedule, it is difficult to orchestrate a united effort.

The other huge problem is requiring flight attendants to do the separating while they have a plane full of people in need of assistance. But the flight attendants are already collecting aluminum cans and corks from wine bottles, and are interested in expanding their efforts to plastic water bottles. Any plastics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for drinking are particularly valuable.

This is not the only recycling effort that American Airlines has made. They repurpose the airplane carpet to area animal shelters, send used blankets to local shelters and even sell retired beverage carts to be converted into tool chests and poolside drink carts. On the plane maintenance end, the airline is starting to recycle large metal parts that come off of their airplanes.

Airlines are attacking the environmental problems associated with the industry. Look for more stories about their efforts in the coming weeks – including how Southwest Airlines is doing their recycling downstream, and how American Airlines is working to hand over an iPad to every pilot to cut paper use down to almost zero.

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