The Scourge of Inflight Garbage

January 24, 2017

DEAR PASSENGER: Look, I know it’s a long flight, and I realize that, at least in your aggrieved mind, commercial air carriers are the most malevolent entities the universe has ever known, fully deserving of your disrespect. But must you? Must you throw your garbage all over the floor? I realize that you’re seated for an extended period of time in cramped quarters, and it’s not like there’s a waste receptacle at every seat. But I’m afraid that’s not a good enough excuse for, say, leaving leaky Chinese food cartons or a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich under your feet.

It’s a sobering spectacle, standing at the forward bulkhead and looking down the aisles once the passengers have disembarked. Arriving from Europe or the West Coast, the cabin of my 767 looks like a typhoon has blown through it. I’ve seen an entire can of Pringles mashed into the floor like sawdust. I’ve seen a mixture of chips and soda trampled and congealed into a kind of carpet-eating concrete. There are newspapers, cups, cans, plastic wrappers of every conceivable color and size, candy, gum, cookies, apple cores, and even sullied diapers, thrown under seats or crammed into pockets. By the time the cleaners have finished, they’ll have stuffed several oversized bags full of waste.

Thousands of long-haul flights operate every day, and each leaves hundreds of pounds of trash in its wake. (Much of this refuse is recyclable; unfortunately, regulations require all garbage be incinerated when a flight is coming from overseas). The amount of litter seems to be more or less proportional to the time spent aloft, but it can be astonishing even after a short flight. The sheer volume of it is depressing enough; the fact that some people are obnoxious enough to dump it on the floor makes it worse.

Airlines, for their part, could and should enact a few sensible, and cheap, countermeasures:

1. Put a lunch-sized, recyclable paper or plastic trash bag in each seat-back pocket. Or, if that itself is deemed too wasteful, supply a bag for each block of seats, to be shared. 

2. Have the cabin crew make more frequent trash collection runs, especially toward the end of flight, accompanied by a PA announcement. Some carriers already do this; alas, many flyers find it easier to simply dump their crap on the floor. Maybe that PA announcement needs to be a little more specific? “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be coming down the aisle to collect any items you wish to discard. Please do us a favor and not leave your trash under your seat.”

3. Cut down on the insane amount of plastic that accompanies the typical inflight meal (cellophane wrappers, cups, etc.).

(I was going to suggest, too, that carriers maybe get away from the types of snacks that are, by their nature, messy. Things like peanuts, chips and mini-pretzels are all but destined for the carpet and seat tracks. But then, what are the alternatives? Carrots?)

As a result of any or all of these ideas, interiors would be less soiled, while turnaround times would be quicker and require less labor. I’ve watched cleaning crews spend a better part of an hour picking up trash after a long flight. Am I wrong, or would a few pennies per plane save an airline millions in annual cleaning costs? Plus you’d have a more attractive product.

Until then, here’s a tip: In a pinch, an airsickness bag might be too small for cans, but it otherwise makes a semi-useful trash container. (Just remember, though, that you’re taking it away from the next person). Or, better, if you’re up in first or business class, your blanket or duvet frequently comes wrapped in a plastic sheathing that, if carefully removed, makes for a roomy receptacle.


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40 Responses to “The Scourge of Inflight Garbage”
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  1. bill helmers says:

    There is technology out there that can ‘gasify’ a plane’s in-flight solid waste produced turning it into nutrient rich garden fertilizer, water and potential heat energy to be recaptured. We are planning to install this for our luxury beach resort in Indonesia. Might be a great solution for smaller airports that cannot afford bio-mass to energy plants on site. Depending on the tipping fees of the jurisdiction involved the cost of the technology might actually present a good return on investment never mind the huge benefit of reducing land fill waste and reducing the atrocious carbon footprint of the airline industry.

  2. Karen says:

    I can’t believe the slobbishness of people on planes! Oh and why, why, WHY? Do passengers using the loos on Air Canada flights insist on stuffing their used paper products (hopefully not used bog roll) into the seat cover dispenser slots? I don’t know what it is – is it the location of the slots? Does it LOOK like a rubbish bin to you? Huh? No!! Please stop!!

  3. Rey says:

    Nice idea for plastic bags.

  4. Joe Davis says:

    Good idea about plastic bag. I take my own to hold the trash which will overload the dining tray. I find KLM planes are cleaner than US ones. Is it because we Americans are sloppier than the Dutch (passengers and crews). May be a challenge to get some of us to use the plastic bags.
    And toilets! On some of our long flights you need Wellies to enter half way through the flight. Contrast KLM and KAL.

  5. Frederick says:

    There is no excuse for being a slob. As for cramped quarters, yes that is true in economy. But every time I fly business class on BA the cabin ends up a mess of newspapers and rubbish on the floor and that can’t be blamed on cramped quarters.

  6. Sean S. says:

    There’s a lot of judgment going on here in these threads, and few have addressed the sheer amount of waste that is generated period in many areas, but especially airlines. Part of this is the nature of large scale food catering these days, relying on prepackaged and cellophane wrapped goods, as well as bottled and canned drinks. Even thinking of the standard meal on a plane you have multiple wrapped goods, multiple condiments, the cutlery is plastic and is wrapped with the napkin. Like the large Amazon boxes and packaging for a tiny item, this is the result of a lack of examining how to make things more efficient and to generate less waste. I suspect that if motivated by financial penalties (such as increasing the expense of trash collection for airlines in some fashion) you would very quickly see someone examining how to reduce plastic use.

  7. Anand Kelkar says:


    Some great points from you and lot of readers. When I fly on very long flights with kids we invariably create junk.
    One of the things I have observed is that the pouch that contains magazines is very small and really thightlh assembled. This makes it hard to keep any trash there until it’s collected. I suggest we get rid of that pouch and create a small trash compartment in the seat in front under the food tray that drops down. It will have a simple durable trash bad inserted in it that the cleaning crew simply replaces. Send the magazines as PDF files via email as part of your flight reservation.


  8. CAG says:

    “3. Cut down on the insane amount of plastic that accompanies the typical inflight meal (cellophane wrappers, cups, etc.).”

    Conversely, maybe the problem is that the airlines have stopped feeding people (except in first class), so the passengers bring on a wide variety of different kinds of food and eat it during preflight, before any trash runs can be made.

    In the olden days of airline meals, there was a certain discipline imposed by the event. People for the most part waited for the food service, received their tray, and had their tray (with the waste) picked up in an orderly fashion. I think they were willing to wait for the food and the cleanup, and without the surly uncouthness I see nowadays.

    In any case, from now on I’m going to start packing a few old produce plastic bags in my computer bag to offer to the more slovenly of today’s fliers, whether or not airlines start offering trash bags at the seats.

  9. mitch says:

    Once the trash has been gathered in Hefty bags, then what? Some airlines have one or more trash compactors in their wide-body aircraft galleys – fits under the counter, about the same size as a food cart. Since they are electrically-powered and FAA-approved for airliners, they cost a bloody fortune

  10. Buff Crone says:

    How typical of you to blame the passengers. I sit in a window seat and am such a fastidious person that I clean my armrests, tray table and even the buckle of my seatbelt with an alcohol wipe as soon as I sit down. The planes are NEVER cleaned. The windows are filthy. The seats are stained and dirty and the carpet is horrifying. But have you ever tried to pick something up after you drop it on the floor? I’m a yogi and I cannot do it without moving into the space of my seat mate. And as far as what people are “entitled” to bring on a flight, the airlines lost the right to say that when they stopped feeding us for free.
    I have tried on every flight to give my trash from the window seat to a flight attendant and can almost never get their attention. Or they say, “I’ll be back later” and then race past. I’ve even tried to give my trash to a flight attendant on the way of the flight, only to be told, “I don’t have a trash bag handy, so take it with you!” I was too polite to fling it at him. If airline personnel and owners treated passengers with even a modicum of respect, perhaps they would behave better. I’ve noticed that first class gets everything taken away promptly and it’s usually (but not always) pretty clean.

  11. KenP says:

    I recently was on a Delta 2.5 hour flight. After the 1 pass through by the FAs to hand out drinks and pretzels. they never came back through to pick up the trash. Even the commuting captain sitting next to me gave up waiting and put his trash into the seat pocket. So some of this mess on the floor is due to the inattention of the crew in collecting the items once used.

  12. Steven says:

    the same people treat the streets and parks the same way

  13. Susan says:

    As you suggest at the end of your article, I always use the packaging from the in-flight blanket to stow my garbage. It works really well for me. Who wants to sit in the middle of all that trash during their flight? I’m usually flying from Tokyo to Chicago, and I wouldn’t be able to stand the mess for that 11-12 hour flight. I also make frequent trips to the galley to discard my trash, thereby stretching my legs and keeping things clean. I’m not as familiar with US domestic flights these days, but it sounds horrendous.

  14. Dianne Leger says:

    This is not necessarily about trash. I do wish the airlines could come up with a way for people not to trash the planes because the filth contributes to the agony and dread that flying (short or long haul) has become. People take their shoes off wearing no socks so you’re exposed to staring at their toenail fungus or worse. People put their feet up above the headrest of the person in front and it’s just disgusting having someone’s dirty socks six inches from your head. The airlines do nothing about this. I dread flying these days and I think most people do. I’m old enough to remember dressing decently was common practice and people took pride in boarding a plane – now it’s like being a passenger in a garbage truck.

  15. Jack Sullivan says:

    OR, remove the (disgusting) carpeting, replace with linoleum and install a floor drain every two feet. Hook drains up to honey wagon receptacle which can be drained at the arrival gate. Then after everyone has deplaned, hose down the floor before ground crews come aboard to reprovision aircraft.

  16. Louis says:

    Thank you for voicing this. Most of my flights are between the two cities I live in, Boston and Berlin. Lufthansa used to have a great way of handling intra-European flights, not sure they do this any longer as I mostly use the trains in Europe. For food, as you walked towards the gangway, there were small plastic lunch bags hanging on stands for each passenger to take as they boarded. There were sandwich choices (clearly marked), but each bag had common items such as a bottle of mineral water, a dessert, chips, napkins, etc. This freed the cabin crew up from having to bring food, or to sell it in today’s world, to each passenger. Clean up was easy, each person had a small bag within which to deposit the few pieces of packaging. One aspect of meals that are sold on flights in the US these days that completely dismays me is the huge amount of packaging and the piles of waste it leaves. I have no idea what the cost differentials are, but my guess would be that the Lufthansa approach could have been less costly than what it costs the airlines to clean up after every flight, to pay a company to transport and incinerate the waste, and to clean the cabin afterwards. Even if it is not cost effective, it seems to me that airlines would go a long way towards improving customer relations by reinstating basic food service in an ecologically sensitive way, and that passengers would not feel so insulted by the flying experience – maybe they would even show more respect for the aircraft.

  17. Joanne B says:

    Not sure it has anything to do with aeroplanes…people are just getting more and more obnoxious in all places. I see people throwing rubbish out of their car windows into the road – heaven forbid they keep it in their cars until they get home and can put it in their own bin. Society’s standards are declining…I sound like my mother but the woman is right!

  18. Bernoulli says:

    I recently flew on a Brussels Airlines flight (JFK-BRU), and the crew made several collecion runs. To the point I held on to my cup in fear they’d take it away! 🙂

    Hot terminal food should be prohibited on the plane, imo. Nothing more disgusting than the smell of junk food on the plane!

  19. Alan Dahl says:

    There are several factors at work here. First with so many people flying these days to a lot of folks an airplane is just a bus with wings and when was the last time you worried about cleaning up after yourself on a bus?

    Secondly space in coach is very, very tight these days so most people are in their own private straight jacket and incapable of picking up anything dropped on the floor in-flight without clearing everyone out of the row which will result in the ire of the flight attendants zipping up and down the aisle with their carts and other passengers trying to get to the bathrooms.

    Thirdly since most airlines don’t serve meals anymore people tend to bring food onboard that is not perishable and that likely means chips, crackers and nuts all of which are messy.

    IMHO the way to deal with this is cheap onboard food that isn’t messy. If done right this might encourage folks not to bring their own messy food. Either that or a “messy passenger” surcharge but I don’t want to give the airlines any ideas!

    • Patrick says:

      Your points are taken, Alan, but throwing your crap on the floor of a bus isn’t really any less obnoxious.

      I think there are other, intangible things in play here too: cultural changes, if you will. The typical economy class cabin is only slightly more cramped nowadays than in years past, yet the amount of garbage on the floor has increased exponentially. I remember flying in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were ALMOST as many people crammed into economy, yet you never saw anything like what you see today.

    • Eirik says:

      Alan Dahl,
      Your “excuses” for why people leave a mess makes no sense. As mentioned in my post below, Ive never left any trash, much less a disaster zone like some do. I fly coach, Im 6’1 and Ive never thought about “limited space” as an excuse to leave a ton of trash behind.

      It all comes down to behavior and having some kind of social intelligence.

    • Richard says:

      “when was the last time you worried about cleaning up after yourself on a bus?”

      Literally every time I’ve been on a bus. Frankly, I stopped reading your comment at that point.

    • Ad absurdum per aspera says:

      > Secondly space in coach is very, very tight these days so most
      > people are in their own private strait jacket and incapable of
      > picking up anything dropped on the floor in-flight

      Welcome to my world, just last night. I had the window seat, and another pretty big guy had the middle, on a near completely full (though mercifully brief) flight. My peanut wrapper was down there somewhere, but there was no way I could even look for it, much less get it, without making everybody else get up. After landing, I couldn’t find it.

      That said, we did eventually land and get up (blood circulation in the legs kinda hurts! why would anyone want it?) and managed to pick up whatever trash hadn’t been taken by the flight attendants (who had gloved up, equipped themselves with plastic garbage bags, and made a couple of passes for that purpose, typically of Southwest). My mother would turn in her grave if I walked away from a plane, or any other public place, and left behind the sort of mess that you so often see these days.

      I don’t think it can be entirely explained by returning the contempt with which some airlines treat you, though that may be part of it — these days you see the same thing in parks, on the sidewalk, etc.

      “If you can pack it in, you can pack it out.”

  20. MikeR says:

    What is it about the business class clientele which makes that cabin look like a small bomb has gone off at the end of a flight?

    Getting off an overnight flight and walking forward from cattle class through the business cabin you’d honestly believe they’d had a riot – blankets and pillows thrown everywhere, rubbish rolling around – just horrible.

    Seriously airlines upgrade me to business – I’d be a delight. Please and thank-you, I wouldn’t pester you too much and everything would be neatly stowed at the end of the flight. Honestly, I am your dream passenger.

    • Rod says:

      No, wait a second — *I’M* your dream passenger. Oh well, maybe we both are. In any case, in daily life I’m damned scrupulous about throwing stuff in the garbage. But, as already noted, when you’re wedged into steerage and having all that plastic-encased junk placed in front of you, figuring out what to do with it all is a conundrum. I’ve always wondered why they didn’t have a modest plastic bag hanging from the sear in front of you, so when you blow your nose the solution is obvious.
      And they could make up for the plastic by using less with the meals. If we trust them to be hygienic about the 17-molecule salad, I guess we could do without the pastic wrapping practically everything else.

  21. Dan Ullman says:

    “even sullied diapers”
    Either a great pun or an interesting typo given the blog post just south of this. 🙂

    • Art Knight says:

      I can see it now. The commercial opens with our hero at La Guardia; an airliner taking off right behind him and lifting over his head. Cut to the captain strolling along the Hudson. He says “You know me as a hero, but I have a secret to share. That fateful day, I was wearing these…”Sullied Diapers.” My R&D team and I worked for years designing these “pride protectors” (chuckling) for emergencies big and small. Sure, to the media cameras and the world I looked like a hero that day, but in reality I was pooping like a nervous puppy.”

      “Sullied Diapers” be prepared for the next time YOU land on water or the second thing.

  22. saranda says:

    Hahahaha! Oh yes, people are retaliating to being held prisoner and being chained down liked caged animals against their wills for a series of hours.

    After the captain rings that magic bell releasing the captives, it’s almost a uniform launch out of their seats and tunnel vision to that exit door looking to free themselves from the metal prison tube. (Their trash is not even a thought)

    PERSONALLY, I would be happy if they banned food altogether, (unless you’re a tiny child or ill) as the smorgasbord of food smells since planes don’t serve meals anymore can especially churn my stomach. Ultimately, you can eliminate garbage and food smells in one shot! 🙂

    • Stephen R. Stapleton says:

      “people are retaliating to being held prisoner”

      I don’t know what airline you fly, but all of the flights I have ever taken were not only with my consent, but I paid good money to be there.

      • Abby says:

        LOL…I keep telling myself I paid good money to be on the flight every time I experience horrible turbulence. I feel like a prisoner strapped in my seat, whith no escape, being tossed around like a leaf in the wind…..all I can think of is I can’t believe I paid to be here.

    • Mug Mayhem says:

      No food?! Punish everyone for the acts of the few.
      I, too, have disdain for those who lack respect for others. I don’t think that drastic measure is a solution. People will still bring their own food even if it is banned. You have diabetics to be concerned about.
      It would be nice if there were an easy solution. Unfortunately, there rarely is.

  23. Kathy says:

    On Interjet, flight attendants pass through the aisle with a big plastic trash bag to collect all the refuse from the flight. Their planes are reasonably clean after a flight. Though their longest flight is about 5 hours.

  24. TJS says:

    I try to leave my area as clean or cleaner than when I started. Many times the cabin cleaning crew miss items stuff in the seat back pocket. But it’s no surprise when the FAs only make one trash pass through the cabin. That’s not all flights of course, but enough to be remarkable.

  25. Matt D says:

    It could also be seen as a sort of passive-aggressive form of revenge from customers who feel slighted or irritated from surly staff, security hassles, cramped seating, and what they perceive as a vindictive nickel-and-dime fare structure.

    Not saying this excuses it or explain it all. I’m merely suggesting that this may be a factor; how much respect would you show someone or something if you don’t feel like it’s being reciprocated?

  26. Robert F says:

    Anyone remember that early episode of “Mad Men” where Don Draper and family have a picnic in a public park and then just leave everything behind? It really sparked a memory for me; I think our family was similarly disposed at that time.

    It seems inarguable that U.S. attitudes about discarding trash in public places has improved since 70s. Maybe an appreciation for the earth and that PSA of “Iron Eyes Cody” shedding a tear as bags of trash were discarded from the interstate led to a change or heart?

    Although I hate all the trash on planes, I do have some sympathy for the family of four traveling for 6+ hours in coach. If you give a kid a bag of goldfish, isn’t there bound to be some goldfish dust packed into the carpet?

  27. Tara says:

    You are not wrong. I see the same behaviour in cinemas, and other public places. I’m not sure how to overcome the sort of self-absorbed thoughtlessness that causes people to do that, though your suggestions are a start.

    Perhaps providing a bin just outside the cabin doors in the ramp, and making announcements to make it clear to people that it is there, would help as well. I don’t know what regulations might need to be changed to help.

  28. Eirik says:

    This amuse me on pretty much every flight. Doesnt have to be a long flight either. Im shocked whats left on and between the seats.

    While your suggestions are good, I dont think it should be needed to begin with. Or let me rephrase; it wont help. People who are that nasty wont care anyway.

    I have never left as much as a paper in my seat. I always hand over my trash when they walk around collecting. Should I have something left after landing, I just grab it and throw it in the trash inside the terminal.

    Some people are just idiots, simple as that. They care about nothing and are selfish by nature. Im sure some are gonna blame the kids for this. Well, in that case, teach your kid how to behave and if they cant, maybe you should pick up after them at least.

  29. Ginger Durgin says:

    It’s disgusting the way some people behave in public.