May 19, 2019

Director at Galileo Watermark, Kenny Harmel, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss sustainability in the airline industry, ocean plastics, the Waste Hierarchy and more

Director at Galileo Watermark, Kenny Harmel, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss sustainability in the airline industry, ocean plastics, the Waste Hierarchy and more.

Galileo Watermark is a sustainability-focused firm that supplies British Airways, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines, Air New Zealand and other leading airlines with ‘aviation product’ – all the items one finds in an airplane cabin that are neither bolted on nor edible.  They manufacture cutlery, blankets, cosmetic amenities and various other products – from economy to first class cabins – and focus their efforts on making these products more sustainable.

Kenny Harmel notes from the outset of the conversation that “sustainability is an obligation rather than a choice”.   

Airlines are exploring how best to achieve affordable sustainability and we hear of innovation and successes, including Qantas Airways’ recent ‘zero waste’ flight – the first ever commercial flight to produce no landfill waste.   None of the cutlery, textiles or other in-cabin amenities were sent to landfills or incinerated, as would normally have been the case.

The majority of plastic cutlery one finds onboard an economy airplane cabin will be a virgin plastic product, made from polystyrene or polypropylene, and because of existing contamination regulations it will be sent to landfill or it will be incinerated. A number of airlines are looking at alternative solutions, such as compostable cutlery, and some are investing in stainless steel alternatives – although the latter has weight implications that impact fuel consumption and require additional water for sanitation. 

Compostable cutlery is a hot topic in the airline industry right now, with the potential to reduce greatly the industry’s impact on the environment.  Kenny is quick to note, however, the misconception many people have when they think of compostable cutlery’s properties.  Many imagine something akin to a banana skin, which you can simply toss out into your garden and watch it compost naturally.

However, this is not necessarily the case since there is a difference between items that are home compostable and those that are industrially compostable.  Unless a compostable product is specifically labelled as home compostable, it is compostable only under the right conditions of temperature, moisture, oxygen and, in actual fact, if the material is not intercepted, collected and treated in the right way, it can be almost as harmful as regular plastic.

In a broader context, Kenny observes that we, as a society, have been driven by convenience and cost, and we haven’t been thinking about the implications of this choice. 

He provides detailed figures on the state of affairs – figures that are alarming by most measures. International politics factors into the conversation as well, and we hear how China’s role as a destination country for plastic waste has changed radically since the end of 2017. Up until that time, about 50% of the world’s plastic waste was exported to China.

China’s more stringent regulations in relation to the sort of plastic waste that is allowed to be exported to the country means that other countries are now having to deal with this problem – many are simply not equipped to do so.

Unlike Germany and Switzerland who have sophisticated expertise and very high rates of efficiency in terms of recycling plastic. Many of today’s recipient countries have neither the infrastructure, expertise nor capabilities to recycle such material.

We hear how even in the UK, different regions and different councils have different levels of recycling ability where, consequently, there is an asymmetric ability to recycle different types of material.  This challenge is aggravated by the fact that most consumers aren’t well informed on precisely what can and can’t be recycled.

Kenny sheds light on the “waste hierarchy” framework, aimed at helping organisations and individuals minimise waste. The hierarchy: (1) reduce, (2) reuse, (3) recycle, (4) reclaim.

On a global level, just 2% of the plastic we manufacture is recycled. There are variances on this figure across countries, whereby countries such as Germany and Switzerland are well into the double digits but other countries quite simply are not. Countries such as Indonesia and Thailand aim to recycle but they don’t have the expertise to recycle to the same levels; and even in the UK there isn’t an ability to recycle to the same level as Germany and Switzerland.

Touching on the topic of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, Kenny notes that “the situation is so bad now that if you take a net and you dip it into any part of the ocean in any part of the world you’ll find traces of plastic”.

In 2017, he co-founded and launched the OCN initiative, which aims to work with organisations around the world to collect plastic waste from the world’s beaches, coastal areas and waterways, so as to give it a second life or multiple lives. This requires not only dedicated volunteers across the planet but, also, an understanding of the chemical challenges posed by the diverse types of plastic waste in the oceans.

He explains how the ‘intrinsic viscosity’ (IV) levels of different types of plastic waste, constrain what one can and can’t do with it once retrieved from the ocean. The challenge is that if you go to the beach to collect plastic it’s not all going to be the same type of plastic. OCN aims to find a way to give a second life or multiple lives to all the plastic one collects, irrespective of the type or quality of material; irrespective of its intrinsic viscosity. 

The conversation goes beyond plastic, and Kenny references a fact many people are unaware of: the textile and clothing industry is the second biggest polluter, right behind the oil industry. And, here again, the waste hierarchy is suggested for sensible guidance. Consumers should think carefully how they handle clothing they no longer wish to use. (i.e. don’t simply throw your old clothes in the garbage/rubbish).

Going back full circle, Kenny observes that “air travel is never going to diminish, it’s only going to grow as the global population grows and globalisation increases”. Keeping the scale of the challenge in mind, we are advised that it’s important not just to do things better but, rather, to do better things.

Kenny’s key takeaway: the key thing is to be mindful of the materials you interact with day on day. Try to eliminate or reduce use of these materials where possible and try to understand where these materials go.  Don’t throw things away and completely forget about them. Think about the end-to-end lifecycle of these materials since that’s the only way we’re going to achieve substantial change.

For full episode notes, guest bios and useful links visit Lidji.org

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