"We have a strong belief in the concept of reduce, reuse and recycle. We feel that anything we can do to ameliorate our impact has to be a good thing," says Mark Watson, head of environment for the airline.
"I don't want to sugar-coat this and say we have all the answers, but we do want to contribute to solutions, and our approach is to learn more by doing more in this area."
The key, he notes, is to have commitment from people at the top and, wherever possible, talk to staff and passengers to spread the message. This creates a sense of involvement, while also inspiring new ideas that can push the initiative forward.
One employee, for example, suggested using plastic rather than wooden pallets for storage. Another came up with a scheme to cut the use of disposable lunchboxes in the canteen. A contractor in London has found a way to recycle energy when washing on-board blankets. And every department has been asked to examine the potential payback of changing even the smallest operational details.
Already that has led to the collection of more than 1.2 tonnes of aluminium cans, the recycling of engine oil from flight simulators, and the sorting after every flight of magazines, newspapers and menu cards for either reuse or delivery to the appropriate subcontractor.
"We are trying to embed this thinking in training, so that it is not something special but a part of standard operating procedure," Watson says. "[It's now noticeable that] flight attendants will take the time to do what we say we do, and outports [airports outside Hong Kong] may ask for advice and assistance on how to recycle an emergency pack. People are really starting to wake up and becoming more cognisant of the needs."
He also points out that, once procedures are well set, results snowball. The quantity of recyclable materials collected - everything from paper to fluorescent tubes, CDs to uneaten food - is climbing by the month, and staff now add to those volumes by bringing suitable waste from home.
Progress is closely monitored, with all contractors required to send a monthly collection record to Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department. Within the company, there is more attention to setting specific targets for recycling different materials.
"To be effective, you have to measure this stuff; any other approach just doesn't work," Watson says. "Staff have taken the agenda on sustainability to heart, but we have to be upfront and have quantitative measures in place. It helps us to make real improvements and see where the challenges are."
To cut waste, Hong Kong's flag-carrier is looking at:
- Ways to minimise hard-copy flight documentation required by the authorities
- Green' alternatives to plastic packaging for certain in-flight items
- A new sustainable development strategy this year for the company