In Buenos Aires, Why 'Zero Waste' Beats Recycling

Many around the world are seeing a radical reduction in generating trash as key to tackling our massive pollution problem. The big change, as certain residents of Buenos Aires explain, is to stop buying packaged products.

Exhibition of Plastic Waste Art in Buenos Aires
Exhibition of Plastic Waste Art in Buenos Aires
Vanessa Lopez

BUENOS AIRES — You're thirsty, you buy a bottle of water. Plastic. You throw out your empty shampoo bottle. Plastic. The greengrocer puts your shopping in a bag. Plastic. You get coffee from a machine at the office. Plastic. You need to buy biscuits, toothpaste or detergent? Plastic, plastic, plastic.

The examples are abundant and ubiquitous, and so ordinary they go unnoticed. While authorities are starting to act, with moves like Buenos Aires banning the distribution of disposable straws, some Argentines have gone further and joined the Zero Waste movement that would eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, trash.

One of its flag-bearers in this city is the singer, actress and environmentalist Connie Isla, who invited Clarín newspaper to visit her home. There is a jute sponge in the kitchen, a metal straw and bamboo cutlery. There are two bins to separate recyclables and non-recyclables, and a compost pot on her balcony to turn waste into fertilizer.

She has practically stopped shopping at the supermarket, which she has replaced with grocery and health shops to which she takes a cotton bag to carry food. Once at home, she puts products in glass jars. When she visits fairs, she takes a compartmentalized container and asks vendors to put food in there. Whenever offered a plastic bag, she gives the simple and effective answer, "No, thanks."

"You need to buy biscuits, toothpaste or detergent? Plastic, plastic, plastic."

In her handbag, she usually carries a tupper-style box, a couple of "green" cutlery items and a reusable water bottle. She'll also carry some fruit in case she feels hungry while she's out, so she does not have buy a snack, which is usually packaged. In her bathroom you can find a bamboo toothbrush (biodegradable), a hand-made wooden brush, solid shampoo and conditioner and vegetable-based soap.

Connie makes her own toothpaste, with virgin cocoa oil and mint oil. She also learned to make deodorant. "It was half liquid, with essential mint oil, essential lavender oil and a bit of alcohol," she says. She later changed that for a natural deodorant cream.

This year she decided to stop wearing makeup. She only applies a facial cleansing cream, sold in reusable glass jars. When emptied, she returns it and is given a refill. Instead of tampons, she uses a menstrual cup and reusable cotton sanitary pads.

It is a process, "we cannot do it all at once," she says, adding "there are so many things we can do for the environment, animals and society. I began gradually informing myself and making little changes in my life."

It may seem extreme, and yet more and more Argentines are living this way. Proof of this is the Facebook group called Comunidad Argentina Zero Waste, with more than 3,300 members exchanging advice and experiences.

To clarify, firstly: Zero Wasters want to reduce single-use plastic, but that is not all. Their philosophy includes the five Rs or actions to reduce waste: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot, or make compost. In that order.

Couldn't you just put everything in the recycling container? "Recycling is a good starting point," says designer Dafna Nudelman, but it would be "a very bad idea not to go beyond that, because the "best trash" is the one you don't produce." Nudelman became known as the "crazy tupper lady" after revealing online that she went to an ice cream parlor with a tupper box. Secondly: Do not "demonize" plastics, Nudelman tells Clarín, as "they are useful in many ways' and have made "revolutionary improvements" to many industries. The point is to differentiate between solid, permanent plastics found in a chair, say, and disposable plastic, she stated.

"This year she decided to stop wearing makeup. She only applies a facial cleansing cream, sold in reusable glass jars." — Coisla via Instagram

Nudelman says she tries to avoid single-use plastics by carrying "substitutes, like a thermo mug, tupper box, cutlery, straw and a bottle." She wants to produce "as little trash as possible" and reduce her carbon footprint.

Another Zero Waster is Florencia Cruz, who launched the Plastic Free (Libre de Plástico) project selling various cloth, bamboo and stainless steel accessories. She admits she has a "low waste" life "because it is impossible to get certain things without plastic. The "zero waste" ideal is quite utopian, and difficult to attain. But slowly, by changing little habits, we can reduce our waste."

According to Greenpeace, 200 kilograms of trash enter the sea every second and between 60 and 80% of that consists of microplastics found in a range of household products. Being too small to be retained by sewage, they end up in the oceans and all too frequently are eaten by sea life. Several studies have ranked Argentina 28th of the world's biggest polluters of the oceans with plastic waste.

Part of the solution is in our hands, and our homes.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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