Switching from plastic to paper cups seems simple, right? Think again.
Delta has spent years prototyping and testing paper cups capable of withstanding hot, cold and alcoholic drinks while meeting strict environmental regulations. Now those cups will take to the skies beginning Dec. 5, 2023, for final testing on several transcontinental domestic and select additional flights. Once approved and rolled out across the Delta network, paper cups will help eliminate nearly 7 million pounds* – the weight of 1,300 pickup trucks – of single-use plastics on board annually and bring Delta one step closer to minimizing single-use plastics on board by 2025.
Delta has already removed more than 4.9 million pounds of single-use plastics annually since 2022 on its journey to deliver a more sustainable travel experience.
With jet fuel emissions accounting for the vast majority of an airline’s impact, why is something like transitioning to paper cups so important to Delta’s sustainability strategy? Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer Amelia DeLuca shared:
“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. 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.”
Cups that airlines use on board need to make sure hot drinks stay hot and cold drinks stay cold while holding up to the dissolving properties of alcohol. Additionally, the cups need to be stackable within the galley carts already in use on aircraft, and be able to separate easily so flight attendants can efficiently serve our customers. One of the most important considerations in the transition to paper cups is that many versions include a plastic-based liner that can make them harder to recycle. This is made even more challenging with international regulations and mandates regarding single-use plastic varying significantly, resulting in a patchwork of rules Delta has to consider as a global airline.
Delta’s approach: Working with sustainability and supply chain experts and production partners to create and manufacture a cup that is uniquely Delta. These new paper cups are customized to help the airline meet international mandates while underscoring Delta’s commitment to a consistent and elevated travel experience. Plus, the cups are compostable and can be recycled where airport recycling facilities are in place, diverting waste from landfills.
“One of the most important things about making long-term, sustainable changes is having the opportunity to test the new solutions and get real feedback from both our employees and our customers,” added DeLuca. “We constantly need to be testing, learning and iterating. That’s what innovating is all about, and innovation is core to Delta’s DNA.”
Testing of the paper cups has been extensive to ensure they meet the high standard customers have come to expect from Delta.
“Finding an alternative to single-use plastic cups that is premium for our customers and practical for our flight attendants is important,” said Kristen Manion Taylor, S.V.P. of In-Flight Service. “Our flight attendants are passionate about minimizing our environmental impact while continuing to create an elevated customer experience on our flights.”
Final testing for Delta’s new paper cups is on track to be completed by spring 2024; following the trial period, the traditional plastic cups will return to all flights while their replacement is produced and ultimately rolled out systemwide.
Delta has long been an industry leader in driving sustainability solutions. In addition to exploring ways to reduce single-use plastics and minimizing waste on board during the 2023 Sustainable Flight Challenge, the Delta Carbon Council has spearheaded companywide efforts that have an impact now to reduce emissions, including enhanced winglet installations for drag reduction, weight reduction initiatives and flight routing/speed optimizations that saved more than 10 million gallons in fuel in 2022, alone. A cumulative savings of more than 1B gallons expected between 2019 and 2035. The global airline has also been a leader in spurring the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – the most important lever the industry has to decarbonize aviation. So far, Delta has signed SAF agreements to meet more than half the volume needed to meet our goal of using 10% SAF by 2030.
Learn more about Delta’s Sustainability Strategy here.
*Compared to single-use-plastic on board in 2019.