Another Major U.S. Airline Is Doing Away with Plastic Cups

Wine in a paper cup? Delta has vowed to replace its plastic cups with cups that are compostable and recyclable as airlines move toward a cleaner, greener future.

Flight attendant pouring coffee into a paper cup on an airplane

The future of flying is . . . paper?

Photo by Shutterstock

Soon, whether you drink coffee, wine, water, ginger ale, or any other beverage on a Delta Air Lines flight, it’ll be served in a paper cup.

This month, the airline announced it had begun testing a new prototype cup on some transcontinental domestic routes. While Delta has long used paper cups for coffee and tea, these new cups won’t be the same—largely because they don’t have the plastic lining commonly found in paper cups, meaning they are compostable and recyclable. It’s something the airline has been working on for several years, as the cups needed to stand up to both hot and cold drinks and the dissolving effects of alcohol (and needed to be stackable and easy for flight attendants to separate).

Once approved, these new paper cups will replace the old paper and plastic cups currently used onboard its fleet of planes. It’s an effort the carrier said will eliminate nearly 7 million pounds (roughly the equivalent weight of 1,300 pickup trucks or 77 Boeing 737s) of single-use plastic each year.

“As an airline, our main goal is to decarbonize our business—a lot of which will come from what we fly, how we fly, and the fuel we use,” Delta’s chief sustainability officer, Amelia DeLuca, said in a statement. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also focus on what we can do right now within our own operation to be more sustainable. These cups are a great example of how Delta is working to address our impact through what we can control today. They’re a highly visible and tangible example for our customers and our people of how Delta is taking our commitment to embed sustainability in everything we do seriously.”

Delta has yet to commit to a date when all the planes will have the new cups onboard but has said it would wrap up testing sometime in spring 2024. The plastic cups will return to the aircraft briefly while enough of the new paper cups are manufactured to meet the needs of Delta’s fleet of nearly 1,000 airplanes, after which the new beverage receptacles will be rolled out permanently.

When Delta finishes the rollout of the new paper cups, it’ll be the second U.S. airline to do away with plastic—in January 2023, Alaska Airlines announced it had finished transitioning away from plastic cups. The Seattle-based carrier has used responsibly sourced paper cups and boxed water containers for the past year.

Efforts to ban single-use plastics in the aviation industry are happening on the ground, too. Both Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport now prohibit the sale of single-use plastic water bottles at in-terminal stores. Fliers can still purchase water in the airport, but it now will be sold in paper cartons or bottles made out of glass or aluminum. (Travelers can also bring their own refillable bottle, like these that AFAR recommends, to fill up at drinking fountains throughout the airports.) Similarly, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is working on phasing out plastic straws.

Currently, the aviation industry is estimated to contribute 2 percent of all emissions worldwide. Minimizing plastics will bring the industry closer to net zero carbon by 2050, a goal of the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for the world’s airlines. However, it’s a small drop in the bucket. As Delta noted in its press release, “Jet fuel emissions account for the vast majority of an airline’s impact.” Thus, finding alternative energy sources, like sustainable aviation fuel, will be one of the most significant components of airlines achieving net zero. However, the widespread use of sustainable aviation fuel is estimated to be years away.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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