Have you ever wondered what airlines do with those lightweight blankets, masks and earplugs they hand out to you, or if you’re reusing somebody else’s previously sneezed-upon blankie? Surely they don’t throw them away…right? Well, good news: in the vast majority of cases, they’re washed, reused, recycled and, in some cases, even made of recycled materials, so you can snuggle up in one with a clear environmental conscience.
While an increasing number of business class and even premium economy cabins are seeing luxury linens from brands like Saks Fifth Avenue or the Westin hotel chain, in economy you’re likely to find a fleece artificial fibre sort of blanket, if at all.
Airlines often don’t load enough blankets for everyone, and low-cost carriers sometimes don’t offer them, which is why you see folks packing their own. Lightweight but warm travel blankets are available on the market, but I tend to bring a sweater or cardigan and a spare pair of socks instead. Layering is usually the most effective way to stay warm on those increasingly rare flights where it’s too cold rather than too warm, and tying the arms of a jumper around your neck can also make for a pillow in a pinch.
On board, if you’re a germophobe — or even if you’re not — you’ll want to check that the blanket is wrapped before you use it. Airline procedures sometimes mean that crews end up folding previously used blankets up and passing them out, which sounds like a recipe for getting someone else’s cold to me.
After use, airlines will most often send blankets off to be washed at an industrial facility (whether it’s one they operate themselves or via a laundry service), but for some carriers this only happens at their home base airports, so used blankets are either stuffed in the overhead bins or folded back up.
The blankets themselves are sometimes recycled at the end of their lifespan, but Emirates’ grey fleecy blankets in economy class are recycled at the start. They’re made using ecoTHREAD, a technology that utilises old PET drinks bottles to make the blankets: twenty-eight recycled plastic bottles get turned into a kind of yarn, which is then woven into the polar fleece to keep your tootsies toasty.
Says the airline, “by the end of 2019, Emirates ecoTHREAD™ blankets would have rescued 88 million plastic bottles from landfills — equivalent to the weight of 44 A380 aircraft. This initiative makes it the largest sustainable blanket programme on board in the airline industry. In addition, the manufacturing process of using recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) reduces energy emissions by 70%.”
Sleep masks and earplugs, though, are single-use items for airlines, so if you’re an environmentally conscious sort of person you might want to invest in reusable ones, which also come with the benefit of being a little higher quality. Alternatively, be inspired by Hollywood and go the celebrity sunglasses route: pop a big pair of sunnies on before you start to snooze and you’re less likely to be disturbed by the light.
John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn.