How LATAM Airlines Cuts Waste and Emissions Throughout Its Operations

Looking beyond its own operations, LATAM Airlines Group is aiming to advance sustainable aviation fuels and also backs an initiative to conserve millions of acres of natural ecosystems in South America. LATAM is asking airports it flies into to enter into recycling agreements and finds most of them understand the reasons for this ask and want to partner to move the needle.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

April 13, 2022

6 Min Read

LATAM Airlines Group, which flies passengers and cargo around the world, has pledged to eliminate all its single-use plastic by the end of 2023; send zero waste to landfill by 2027; and offset 50% of domestic CO2 emissions by 2030. It aims for these ambitions while trying to work its way out of Chapter 11 after several rough years through COVID.

Among work in progress is on-board recovery of segregated recyclables, flown to airports for processing, and a program where corporate clients buy credits to offset emissions generated during their air travel.

Looking beyond its own operations, the airline group is aiming to advance sustainable aviation fuels and also backs an initiative to conserve millions of acres of natural ecosystems in South America with tremendous potential to sequester carbon but threatened by deforestation and degradation of wetlands.

Juan Jose Toha, LATAM Airlines Group’s director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability, started the conversation with Waste360 around the first two targets: eliminating single-use plastics and ending landfilling.

“We begin with on-board single-use plastic. That’s because it’s the waste we have the most of.”

In 2019 the operation generated 1.8 thousand tons of it and with this realization set a course to eliminate about 1,000 tons of the material by 2022, on the way to its year-end target for 2023.

“It’s about more than recycling; it’s avoiding getting plastics on the plane when we can, and there is a lot we can eliminate. When you look at the amenity kits, basically everything is covered in plastic, and most of it is not needed,” Toha says.

Mitigating waste in the first place is especially a focus on international flights because recycling is not an option. Materials have to be burned to prevent disease transmission. But reducing before recycling is a goal wherever it flies, and it’s moving in this direction by finding alternatives when they can work, with one example being  replacing plastic protection for pillows with washable cotton bags, which actually has proven cheaper than buying plastic.

Some plastic is essential and will remain in use, mainly food packaging.

But, says Toha, “We are pushing ourselves to move from our comfort zone and make sure what we use is what we need; not use it because we always have.”

When feasible, 100% of plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper are recovered on board on domestic flights, separated, and later recycled.

But achieving high recovery rates is not easy.

“Imagine a network of more than 100 airports, and you need a process implemented in all of them. It isn’t possible today. So, in some cases, we must transport garbage back home to main airports to recycle it because in a lot of South America there are no companies that recycle.”

LATAM is asking airports it flies into to enter into recycling agreements and finds most of them understand the reasons for this ask and want to partner to move the needle.

A “Fly Neutral” program is also garnering interest. Clients tap into a platform to learn about their emissions and buy credits to offset their carbon footprint. The revenue goes to environmental projects in South America. The program works for both client and for LATAM, who matches clients’ investments.  

“When you look at climate change challenges, we as a group can’t face them ourselves. It’s too big, so we need commitments from all stakeholders, and one is our clients,” Toha says.

LATAM is also looking to be part of the picture to advance sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which by Toha’s hopeful estimate will be available and at competitive prices in about 10 years.

“For SAF to be a viable alternative in terms of production, scale, and price, the role of governments and public-private collaboration are essential to establish the regulatory framework and promote research and development, among other enabling conditions. We believe we have great opportunity to lead this process. As an airline group, our role is to give a clear signal about our commitment, providing certainty about the demand for governments and producers,” he says.

Leveraging existing technologies and practices, LATAM has reduced its own CO2 emissions 5 to 6% and increased aviation fuel efficiency by 5.3% over the past 10 years with a few approaches being to run one engine while planes taxi, updating the fleet with enhanced engine technology, and reducing weight on board.

On a far-reaching scale, Toha believes carbon sequestration could be a huge catalyst in cutting emissions.

“There is tremendous potential in South America, specifically Brazil, Chile, Peru, Columbia, and Ecuador where we operate, to improve carbon capture leveraging natural resources. That’s if we can preserve ecosystems and recover parts that are not destroyed.”

With that thought, LATAM entered a long-term agreement with Cataruben Foundation to buy carbon credits. Revenue from sales supports residents in the Colombian Orinoquía in finding ways to sustain themselves other than through agriculture in order to preserve floodplains and native species.

“You have to give people an alternative, and Cataruben does that, making sure the way the land is used is sustainable to protect forests and not take water from wetlands,” Toha says.

The CO2BIO conservation initiative as it’s known has so far helped reduce 1,440,180 tons of CO2 emissions. By 2025, the project aims to replicate this work on about 247 million acres to achieve a reduction in net emissions of 12,730,901 tons of CO2 equivalent, says Eduwin Hincapié Peñaloza, relationship manager of Cataruben Foundation.

Among alternative practices residents engage in are zoning of micro-ecosystems; establishing fire barriers as a defense against droughts; and training in carbon balance management at the farm level.

From January 2021 to date, LATAM has purchased 764,587 carbon credits to support the foundation’s work.

Consequently, says Peñaloza, landowners have conserved over 74,000 acres of native forest, over 156,000 acres of wetlands, and have protected threatened fauna and flora species.

“Very few carbon projects in the world can come into direct contact with the final buyer of carbon credits (who uses them to neutralize their carbon footprint), due to a series of intermediaries. However, LATAM's flexibility has allowed us to achieve direct interaction, thus leaving only the actors that generate value in the chain: landowner, organization responsible for the project, and final buyer. This has generated confidence in the property owners, guaranteeing their permanence in the project and measurable execution of climate actions,” Peñaloza says.

People ask LATAM why, in the midst of a reorganization to stay afloat,   it chose to commit to so many rigorous projects.

Toha’ answer? “Whether we are in Chapter 11 or not, it does not change that this is what humanity needs to do. This is the only moment we have to face this and push this agenda.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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