There’s nothing like gazing at the ocean through a plane window to make you feel like a tiny speck in a vast universe. But the closer you get to that water, you learn that our collective impact on the oceans is anything but small. Unsettling evidence that trash in our oceans—particularly plastic—is taking a devastating toll on marine life has sparked recent initiatives to dramatically limit the availability of single-use products.
Alaska Airlines had the ocean in mind when it recently replaced its beverage-cart plastic stir straws and cocktail citrus picks with environmentally friendly alternatives. Working with Lonely Whale, an organization that helps businesses implement ocean-safe practices, Alaska now offers compostable products made of white birch and bamboo on all of its flights and in its airport lounges. The carrier also has a sustainable version of a traditional straw for passengers with special needs.
This latest switch is but one in a long series of steps demonstrating the airline’s commitment to sustainability. In 2017, Alaska switched most of its beer offerings from bottles to cans, as cans weigh less and are easier to recycle. They plan to replace their larger juice boxes (including straws!) with cans as well. And the carrier boasts an impressive recycling haul: 12,000 tons of materials from its flights have been recycled since the beginning of its sustainability program in 2010. Alaska encourages reuse, too: flight attendants are instructed to refill passengers’ plastic cups rather than providing new ones with each beverage.
In recent years, plastic straws have been singled out as particularly dangerous to ocean dwellers such as sea turtles and fish. Because we use so many of them—as many as 500 million per day in the United States—they are plentiful in our waste stream. Attempts to recycle straws usually fail, because they don’t weigh enough to be drawn into a sorter. And because straws are so light, the wind can easily drag them into the ocean when they spill out of trash cans or are abandoned on the beach. Once straws enter the water, the thin plastic breaks down into microplastics, which are easily consumed by marine animals.
Alaska’s home base of Seattle, WA, has also committed to ditching plastic straws. In July 2018, the city initiated a ban on straws as well as plastic utensils. In partnership with Lonely Whale, the city’s “Strawless in Seattle” program eliminated 2.3 million single-use plastic straws from the city within months. California has followed suit, promising that it will ban straws from sit-down restaurants (unless patrons request them) starting in 2019.
Other airlines are catching the plastic-reduction fever as well. American Airlines is also taking aim at straws, serving drinks without them and providing a biodegradable straw and stir stick upon request. United and Delta offer plastic recycling onboard, and British Airways is researching the use of non-plastic products, among other environmental initiatives. With the help of airlines such as these, we can rest easier as we admire the ocean from our perch in the sky.