I Just Wanted Water Without the Plastic Cup. ~ Liz Brown Morgan

Via elephant journal
on Aug 2, 2012
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Photo: dlytle

Uh oh. I made a fuss on an airplane.

As the drink cart came slowly down the aisle and finally made its way to me, I asked for water. I asked for water to be poured from the one liter plastic bottle they were serving it from into my own steel water bottle. I wanted water, but without the plastic cup.

Why the plastic cup? Perhaps in some nod to civility, so that a person might drink from a glass-like thing called a disposable cup, or so that ice could be added.

I wondered, is it more cost effective to store ice on the plane than it is to keep the drinks cold on their own? Do drinks even need to be cold? Is it cheaper to divvy the portions from small cans and bottles into smaller cups than it would be to simply serve the soda or water straight from its original single-use disposable container? Or is there some reason that a single-use disposable situation must be implemented?

They told me health regulations. They told me the FAA might be on the plane watching the flight crew to make sure that no one was served water except in a plastic cup. My flight experience, somehow, is beholden to the plastic industry that is poisoning the food and water, the people, the planet, and the oceans. It all looks so calm from up here but the world below is fighting for its life because we up here are using plastic single-use disposables.

I feel trapped not just in a crazy-plane but in a culture that can’t get it’s head out of its “we’re too busy to wash a glass” butt.

The amount of use-only-once plastic I see right in front of me just on this one little plane, is enough to poke a hole in that place in my heart where there is still a well of hope that this culture can be transformed, that we can regain some class, that the planet might be saved from suffocating under a toxic plastic heap.

Every day we waste. We pollute. We fall victim to the so-called convenience, which is no longer just a convenience but a way of life. A total way that our society is organized around this single use disposable practice. We have buried our dignity, our sanity, our respect for the places we live, for the food we eat, in a throw-away culture.

Plastic does not turn into a pumpkin after one use. It still works, but for some reason we act like it’s okay to use something once and throw it away. We act or pretend like it is cleaner, forgetting that the entire global ecosystem is crashing in large part, because of plastic and other disposables.

The global life is dying because we are killing it by lying to ourselves that plastic is cleaner than a steel water bottle. We forget to look behind the curtain and see what is really going on, where the plastic came from and where it is going and how it is contaminating our bodies and our planet.

I am drinking wine out of the small glass bottle on this airplane. The wine came with another plastic cup with a paper napkin stuffed inside, both of which I had to return. So I have this bottle that will be garbage momentarily, and they are pushing more and more single use disposables on me. The fight you have to go through just to reduce, not even eliminate your senseless consumption!

In between flights, at the Philadelphia airport, I got two breadsticks at some chain store. They started wrapping them in ungodly amounts of tin foil so that I could immediately remove them eat them and dispose. I asked for just one piece of tin foil. The clerk did not understand. Another clerk came over and he tried to explain to the first one but her poor English or her
lack of creativity prevented it. The second clerk took over. “Just one tin foil?”

Yes. One. Somehow I ended up with three pieces of tin foil to wrap two bread sticks. Slight of hand? I don’t know what happened but I was duped again.

I’m just at a loss in America. Who can explain to me what is going on? Why we are so hideously wasteful? Why have we decided that this is okay? Why are we killing ourselves and the planet in our own filth?

When traveling to other countries I always think that the true measure of the level of civilized culture a group of people has achieved is in how they manage their waste. If we look at how America manages its waste (plastic, paper, nuclear, fracking fluids, agricultural nitrogen, etc.) it might easily be said that the great American civilization (the civilized, lofty,
nation on a hill, cultured part of it) is in serious decline—and this time, unlike the past environmental catastrophe induced declines of smaller cultures, it could mean the end of global human civilization as we know it. All so nobody has to wash a glass.

Liz Brown Morgan is the founder of Backyard Agrarian, the inventor of TareWare, and the author of the Falcon Guide to Foraging in the Rocky Mountains (expected publication Spring 2013 by Pequot Press).



Editor: Seychelles Pitton

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12 Responses to “I Just Wanted Water Without the Plastic Cup. ~ Liz Brown Morgan”

  1. BottleFiller435 says:

    Why don't you just fill your water bottle once you make it through security?

  2. Shared! Thank you.

  3. Kristin says:

    WestJet flight (within Canada) they filled my litre stainless steel bottle up from their 1.5L bottle of Dasani or whatever bottled water du jour they were serving. Just sayin'… US airline rules & regs are ridiculous.

    But I do agree with BottleFiller 435… filling up in the bathroom on the other side of security is ideal- when your waterbottle fits under the tap anyways…

  4. Kimiko says:

    Loved this! This is on my mind all the time and it is nice to hear someone share it out loud. Hopefully you have lit a fire under a few people to get on board.
    Plus, if you are on a 4hr + flight you best be filling up that water bottle of yours on the flight to stay properly hydrated.

  5. David says:

    As someone who is part of the airline industry, I would like to shed some light on this situation. The one thing that answers several of your questions is weight. First of all, one reason that airlines use plastic cups rather than a reusable glass or metal is that the latter two would weigh significantly more when stocked in the airplane. This might not seem like an issue at first, but every pound you add to the aircraft you are riding in, the more fuel it needs, therefore the more fuel it burns and adds to our atmosphere. There are several airlines who are attempting a change to more eco-friendly fuels, but it is a slow process unfortunately.

    Secondly, if the airlines decided to ignore the fact that reusable glass or metal cups weigh more, the inability to wash these in flight is not due to laziness, but again, very little potable water (which comes out of the lavatory sinks) is stored on the plane, in order to conserve weight and fuel burn. The amount of water that would be needed to wash an entire cabin’s glasses and utensils would weigh a tremendous amount, and therefore is more fuel-efficient to do without. On top of this, all aircraft have maximum weight limits. The more weight that is carried for systems on the aircraft, the less passengers and cargo it can carry, thigh means more potable water might prevent some passengers from getting on the plane. In order to keep up with passenger demand, airlines would have to add more flights and then again burn exponentially more fuel.

    Thirdly, The reason that ice and cups are handed out vs. cooling the drinks beforehand is again: weight. There are no refrigeration systems on the aircraft because of the weight required and other systems needed in the aircraft for this. The only things that are chilled throughout the flight are food and drink items that require refrigeration in order to not go bad. This is done by something called a “chiller” which is basically a box with dry ice in it. Most drinks are left warm until serving because cooling them throughout the flight instead of when served again would require yet more ice to be stored on the aircraft which again equates to more weight.

    Now, I agree with you that unless it’s required to be refrigerated to keep from going bad, I couldn’t care less if my drink is cool or not when drinking it and don’t have a problem drinking it straight from the personal-sized container that it came in. I think the real issue here is for passengers who would prefer to drink things like water, orange juice, etc. (or for that matter, any drink that usually is not in a passenger-sized container) how many of those passengers would be willing and/ or proactive enough to bring their own reusable bottles. Right now, it seems like very few passengers bring their own reusable bottles and until they do, or the airlines start telling their passengers to bring their own reusable bottles, this will probably not change.

  6. Liz Morgan says:

    How lovely to come home after a day of taking photos of edible plants on the Continental Divide to such a lively discussion! So, first, to answer the simple question, I normally do fill up my water bottle on the way tot plane. I prefer to get water out of those big soda dispensers. Restaurants will also usually fill water bottles up. On this particular flight, security had been really long and I was just really late and running to catch my flight so I didn’t have to time fill it up on the way.

    David – Thank you so much for your insight on this. It’s really enlightening and I appreciate that you took the time.

    So, here’s a question, most people are going to drink a can of soda or a bottle of water – why not just give it to them instead of transferring it to the cup? If the drink cart comes through twice for refills, that really about a whole can per person i would think. Couldn’t that save some resources? Of course, it doesn’t deal with the ice/refrigeration issue, but for people willing to drink it room temp…

    So, how do we get the airlines to start telling people to bring their own reusable bottles and cups? Great idea!

  7. Jordyn says:

    I was always told that technology would solve our problems. Trust in the recycling people or the scientists or the engineers or the government science grants but it seems to be getting so bad now – the ocean gyre, the ocean acidity, everything is dying. Scientists are in it for patents and to make money and that’s where science grants go. I just don’t see how technologists will fix it anymore. I think it is up to us to stop what we are doing and get on a different bus. Hopefully one that is Flintstones style people powered.

  8. David says:


    Before I answer your question, I also wanted to add something that I forgot to mention in my last comment. I know it seems that these extra cups from airline flights are used once and discarded, only to end up in a landfill. I did want to add that there are several airlines (and it seems that more are following suit) that do have recycling programs where the flights newspapers, cups, and other recyclable waste is recycled instead of being merely thrown out as garbage. I know this is not a replacement for getting rid of the need for the enormous amount of plastic cups airlines use, but it is a step in the right direction.

    As far as I know, there are no FAA regulations or regulations that apply to airlines that would require an airline to provide a separate drinking container for each passenger receiving beverages. It doesn't seem that there are any health department regulations requiring this either, considering I've had numerous experiences in restaurants and bars where I was only given a can or bottle without a separate cup or glass.

    What might be the issue for the event you are writing about is the fact that the airline itself might have a policy requiring its flight attendants to give out the extra plastic cup. I think the big reason for this is that they think the vast majority of their passengers want to be able to add ice to their drinks as they want them cold. Another reason could be that the beginning of commercial aviation had a level of luxury associated with it and this is one 'tradition' (although the luxury has definitely been scaled down over time) that airlines might have intentionally or unintentionally kept.

    A possible third reason that the airline might insist on serving its beverages in a separate cup is that there could be a possibility of the can or bottle inadvertently coming in contact with chemicals/toxins between the manufacturer and the aircraft environment and the separate cup is a step to prevent possible health issues associated with such events and drinking straight from the container. This shouldn't prevent the flight attendant from being able to pour the ordered drink into a personal bottle though. Even if the reason for using separate cups in order to control serving sizes for rationing beverages to passengers, this could easily be done with passengers carrying personal bottles as well as the flight attendant wouldn't be required to fill everyone's bottle to the brim.

    Now, how airlines could convince their customers to bring their own reusable bottles? While it's unfortunate that presenting to most airline management officials the ecological advantages alone of discarding their plastic cup program would leave them uninspired at best (with maybe the exception of forward-thinking airlines such as Virgin America and WestJet), I think the key to get airlines on board is to convey the economic potential of your idea.

    First of all, the cups could be presented as an unnecessary cost to the airline, as passengers probably not miss them and would be willing to drink out of the original containers.

    Secondly, the idea from grocery stores in Europe, and from IKEA and others stores in the U.S. who are now charging the customer for use of disposable plastic bags while customers who bring their own reusable bags are free of this surcharge, can definitely be adapted to airline use. The airline would still carry some plastic cups but significantly less than what they do now, and whoever would forget their reusable bottle for their flight could either decide forgo using a separate drinking vessel or pay a small fee to use a recyclable cup. This concept would not only lower costs for airlines but also present a new revenue source which would be appealing to (I think) most airlines.

    If airlines are still unwilling to give up plastic cups, another route may be figuring out a way to promote switching from plastic cups to more sustainable plastic-like cups made out of biodegradable plant materials.

  9. Lisa says:

    why did you have to bring up someone’s “poor English?”

  10. Daisy says:

    A note on international flights: I always take my empty Klean Kanteen through security and then fill it with water after I get through security, no matter how long or short my flight. But in 2010, I learned that what is fine on the ingoing flight might not be okay on the outgoing flight.

    When I flew to Hong Kong, no problem taking my filled water bottle on the plane. On my flight back, however, no liquids were allowed on the plane except for what was in the 1 quart bag. I was not aware of this beforehand so I had to chug my 40 ounces of water before I could get on the plane.

  11. Liz Morgan says:

    Lisa – I only mentioned the clerk’s poor english because there really was a significant language barrier which I think was the main reason that that person didn’t understand what I was asking. For most people, I think it’s more of a cultural issue – in other words, we are so conditioned to use disposables that a request not to use them is confusing to people and I find that many clerks try to fight against that type of change request. In this case, at least with the first clerk, I don’t think that was the case. I think she just really, because of the language barrier, didn’t understand what I was asking.

  12. mike says:

    as expected another great post from you!
    hope to see more from you
    american party cups