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Tina Casey headshot

Delta Does (and Does Not) Ditch Plastic; Why It’s All Good

By Tina Casey

Editor's Note: This story is part of an editorial series featuring companies on CR Magazine's 20th annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking, which recognizes outstanding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosure and performance among the Russell 1,000 Index. You can follow the series here

As the urgency of climate action comes into sharper focus, airlines have found themselves on the front lines of the battle over carbon emissions. They have also become a bellwether for innovative solutions. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of Delta Air Lines’ recent projects that touch upon both environmental and social sustainability.

1. Say goodbye to small plastic items

The movement to ban plastic straws has gathered strength in recent months, and Delta has been among the early adopters.

Delta drew attention with its plastic straw ban last October. The ban was part of broader, ongoing initiative to remove single-use plastics - including beverage stirrers, wrappers, and cutlery as well as straws - from aircraft. The company’s Delta Sky Clubs are also included in the ban.

For some perspective on the cumulative impact, consider that Delta had previously banned plastic wrap from cutlery in its international Main Cabin. With that ban alone, Delta anticipated saving more than 300,000 pounds of plastic yearly.

2. Small plastic items are just the tip of the sustainability iceberg

Like a growing number of other companies, Delta is also addressing the plastic waste problem on a larger scale.

Last November, Delta announced that its Monroe Energy jet fuel refinery in Pennsylvania will begin receiving oil produced from waste plastic. The new initiative partners Delta with the Oregon-based company Agilyx, which plans on providing the refinery with about 2,500 barrels per day of the plastic-to-oil feedstock by 2020.

Agilyx caught the media spotlight in 2011, when Total and Waste Management invested in the company’s modular waste conversion system. According to Agilyx, each module can convert one ton of plastic waste into as much as 240 gallons of synthetic crude oil, depending on the type of plastic in the mix.

The new agreement also pairs Delta with the global environmental innovator Sir Richard Branson, who counts Agilyx among his investments.

3. Paying attention to details

While Delta’s plastic initiatives operate on a massive scale with attention-grabbing numbers, the company is also involved in projects that are small in scale, but that also have a high impact on the Earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it.

One of those is the company’s honeybee preservation partnership with the startup Bee Downtown.

In April 2018, Delta received three beehives from Bee Downtown, which works with companies to provide beehives at their facilities.

The so-named “Honey Hangar,” located at Delta’s offices in Atlanta, provides more than honey. It also provides Bee Downtown and other bee-watchers with important information on the health of the local pollinator habitat, and its ability to sustain colonies of honey bees.

And, the beehives connect Delta with a fundamental matter of sustainability in the food supply. The company cites Bee Downtown Bee founder and CEO Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, who explains: “Every third bite of food we eat is thanks to a honey bee. They're the backbone of our agricultural system. Bee Downtown fights the devastation of these important natural workers by installing and maintaining company-sponsored hives in urban areas, where bees thrive due to diverse food sources and stable living conditions.”

4. Enlisting the power of youth

Delta’s latest sustainability report quantifies the impact of many more programs, but perhaps the most significant initiative undertaken by the company is one that is not so easily quantified.

When Delta announced its plastic straw ban last fall, it also launched a new Youth Advisory Council to support the initiative along with other environmental actions.

Delta lined up some savvy activists in support of the Advisory Council. The initial members — Carter and Olivia Ries of One More Generation, and Shelby O’Neil of Jr Ocean Guardians — already had experience in organizing sustainability activities at Delta and elsewhere.

Delta’s initial plans for the Youth Council also included Emma Kavanaugh of the Surfrider Youth Club. The aim is to recruit additional members representing diverse communities and interests, through a partnership with the Captain Planet Foundation.

As described by Delta, the youth group will connect with the existing GreenUp employee group to brainstorm on improving and expanding the company’s environmental activity.

The Advisory Council is just getting under way, so its impact remains to be seen. However, considering the ability of young activists to galvanize movements like gun control as well as climate action, it’s a good guess that the new group will kick off a fresh burst of environmental activity at Delta.

5. What’s next for Delta

In addition, Delta is already primed for activist culture through its other corporate social responsibility initiatives.

One example is Delta’s support for HIV/AIDS action. Earlier this month, Delta company took up the role of presenting sponsor at the high profile AIDS Walk New York in New York City. The annual event is a project of the organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which advocates for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS as well as supporting research leading to more effective treatments and a cure.

Another clue to the future influence of the Youth Advisory Council lies in Delta’s long-term relationship with Habitat for Humanity.

Over the past 10 years Delta has constructed 264 homes globally with Habitat, and 12 of them were built with the proceeds from Delta’s aluminum, oil, and scrap metal recycling programs.

That connection echoes the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which promote a holistic approach to progress.

The SDGs were designed to measure and track progress by nations, and forward-looking companies are also beginning to use them as a companion to their social responsibility reporting.

As the Youth Council finds its footing, look for more programs from Delta that echo the interconnected concerns of youth activists, linking environmental goals with progress on social justice and human rights.

Image credit: Delta Air Lines/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey