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Alaska Airlines Ditches Plastic Cups in Broader Push to Curb Plastic Waste

Alaska Airlines is the first U.S. carrier to stop using plastic cups for inflight beverage service, as part of a broader push to phase out single-use plastics. So, what can travelers expect, and how much impact does this really have?
Alaska Airlines

In a first for U.S. carriers, Alaska Airlines announced that it is once again shifting its inflight offerings, abandoning plastic cups in favor of eco-friendly replacements.

The airline will switch to FSC-certified paper cups in the main cabin and reusable glassware in first class. The move is part of a multi-year process to transition away from the airline's five greatest sources of plastic waste, including stirrers, bottles and cups, by the year 2025. 

In the airline's announcement, the managing director of guest products, Todd Traynor-Corey, stated: "This is another important step in our journey to eliminate single-use plastics and an important step for the industry to see how product innovations can chart a course to a greener future."

Alaska Airlines' five-step plan to address single-use plastic

While the switch away from single-use plastic is certainly a positive process, some find the gradual speed at which Alaska Airlines has implemented these changes to be surprising. After all, if the airline can recognize the environmental harm created by its single-use plastic products, it would surely replace those products immediately.

Unfortunately, it isn't so simple for a massive company to re-route its practices toward a more sustainable model. On top of that, the process of phasing out plastic products relies on cooperation and coordination with associated suppliers.

"It requires broad collaboration with our supply chain partners and inflight team to make new products and practices that move us toward a future with less plastic," Traynor-Corey said. "That progress only happens with a deeply shared commitment to care for our environment."

Alaska Airlines switches from plastic cups to paper cups
Alaska Airlines will switch from plastic to paper cups in a broader push to minimize single-use plastic waste. 

Performative or progress?

The significance of Alaska Airlines' decision remains unclear. When each flight emits nearly a million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is difficult to celebrate the use of paper over plastic.

"No one at the airline is under the delusion that eliminating straws is a monumental achievement," TriplePundit founder Nick Aster wrote in 2018 in response to Alaska's initial straw announcement. "It's rather seen as an incremental step in a long list of improvements, some bigger than others."

The numbers speak for themselves: Alaska claims that the shift away from using 55 million plastic cups annually, as well as its partnership with Boxed Water to replace plastic bottles, will combine to "eliminate 2.2 million pounds of plastic waste from landfills every year, the equivalent weight of 24 Boeing 737s."

Broader sustainability goals at Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines' five-part plan to phase out single-use plastic is one of the main components of the airline's broader goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.

The company is not just concerned with cleaning up its own procedures, and hopes to inspire its patrons to think more sustainably. Indeed, even as the airline takes measures to reduce its own use of water bottles, it also urges guests "join us in reducing waste by bringing their own water bottles to #FillBeforeYouFly."

Beyond plastics, Alaska Airlines frequently forays into new strategies to maximize carbon efficiency, and recently implemented an artificial intelligence navigation system called Flyways AI to further reduce waste created and the fuel consumed by each flight.

Image courtesy of Alaska Airlines

Patrick McCarthy headshot

Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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