Air Canada, Environmental Affairs | 2020 Canadian SDG Accelerators Awards Profile

Air Canada, Environmental Affairs

Industry: Aviation/Travel


Category: Large

Applicable SDG: SDG 12: Responsible Production and Consumption

Applicable Targets:

  • Target 12.5. By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse

Please explain why the selected SDG is a priority for your company

In a world that is constantly changing and evolving, we maintain deeply rooted connections to the people we fly, the communities we serve, and the environments in which we operate through our global network. At Air Canada, we understand that this gives us both a responsibility and an obligation to demonstrate our values in all that we do. This includes ensuring that our company itself is sustained and stands up for what is right for the long-term interest of our employees, customers, and communities.  

In 2018, we undertook a materiality assessment to identify the main sustainability areas of focus of our key stakeholders. Through this exercise, and past and ongoing sustainability initiatives, we found a great alignment between our focus and the Sustainable Development Goals. We are committed to making the Sustainable Development Goals part of the strategy and culture of our company, and to engaging in collaborative projects which advance the goals. To this end, we are proud to have been the first Canadian airline to confirm its commitment to join the UN Global Compact, an organization that encourages all businesses to adopt sustainable, socially responsible practices. 

While this application is aimed to address Goal 12, we are proud to support all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and we are particularly focused on seven goals being: Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being, Goals 5: Gender Equality and 10: Reduced Inequalities (as a champion in Diversity and Inclusion practices), Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, and Goal 13: Climate Action, while always staying true to our core value, Safety First, Always and exercising responsible and ethical business practices (see Figure 1). 

We take great pride in connecting Canada and the world. In accepting that mission, we also recognize that we must do our part to minimize our environmental footprint. We make great efforts to integrate environmental considerations into all our business decisions. Our approach is two-fold: Leave Less through our operations: less carbon in our atmosphere, less waste in our land and water, and less noise in our communities; and Do more to address environmental issues: more collaboration and participation with our industry partners, more involvement in our communities and with our employees and customers to have an even greater impact in our efforts. 

In 2017, we began the implementation of the 2020 Corporate Waste Strategy. The focus of the strategy is to reduce the amount of waste we generate and send to landfill, through the following targets:  

(1) Reduction of 20 per cent waste in our offices, Maple Leaf Lounges, and other facilities. 

(2) Recycling of 50 per cent of approved items on board domestic flights.  

Over time, we have worked together with our employees, customers and communities and have developed a series of environmental initiatives and believe that growth and prosperity should not come at the expense of sustainability. We are committed to operating our business responsibly and with integrity for the benefit of future generations.

Please describe the initiatives/programs that your company is taking to address the TARGETS of your primary SDGs

Air Canada’s 2020 Corporate Waste Reduction Strategy is focused on reducing the amount of waste we send to landfill by minimizing the amount of waste we generate, reusing where feasible, recycling as much as possible, and processing non-recyclables through other preferred methods. What makes our strategy unique is that we have implemented waste reduction and responsible disposal practices at all levels of our operations. From recycling in our offices to reducing single-use plastics in our aircrafts, Air Canada is committed to finding creative and long-lasting solutions to divert waste from the landfill.  

On the ground  

In 2018, Air Canada introduced a centralized recycling program at our Montréal headquarters and Vancouver Operations Centre. Larger receptacles in common areas were installed, deskside garbage bins were eliminated, and employees had access to recycle common items such as plastics, paper, and organics. By the end of 2019, the program was rolled out to our Winnipeg, Calgary, and Toronto offices. Several more offices are being reviewed for implementation in to 2020 and beyond. In addition, we implemented recycling for a range of items including wood, metal, and plastic film in our operational facilities.  

As of 2019, all our Maple Leaf Lounges in Canada are participating in waste segregation programs offered through the airports. In early 2020, prior to closing the Maple Leaf Lounges due to the pandemic, 18 of our 19 Canadian lounges recycled and 14 offered composting programs. Last year we completed two audits of lounges in Toronto and Calgary to estimate over all waste diversion and implemented new consistent signage across lounges. We are looking to further collaborate with airports to enhance diversion from landfill and reduce organic and landfill waste in our international lounges in the future.  

In the air   

Air Canada has an Onboard Recycling Program for all domestic flights, which is one way we are working to “Leave less” in the environment. We have recycling processes for domestic waste at eight of our nine major Canadian airports. Recyclables are sorted onboard by cabin crew in designated bags and recycled through our ground operations and catering facilities. To track annual recycling efficiency, Air Canada conducts annual waste audits of domestic on-board waste and is exploring options to divert even more recyclable items from the landfill.   

We have also been working closely with other airlines and stakeholder groups to gain a better understanding of the risks associated with international recycling and composting. Due to strict regulations enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Air Canada along with other transport carriers, are not permitted to recycle from international destinations due to the risks of contamination from foreign food and plant born vectors. Previously, the CFIA and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) at Pearson airport had not allowed any recycling to be done at Pearson due to a perceived risk of biohazard contamination. In 2017, after much hard work by our environmental team over many years, Air Canada was given permission to begin trialing a recycling programs for items from domestic flights at designated gates in Toronto Pearson Airport.   

Single use plastic  

Air Canada’s commitment to minimizing waste also includes significant plastic reduction efforts. This includes researching and rethinking important decisions made at various stages of our supply chain with the goal of minimizing our single use plastic use. In 2018, we identified options to eliminate, replace, and reduce our single use plastic items onboard. We also formed a plastic reduction steering committee to determine how best to introduce sustainable alternatives on our flights. In 2018, we also took on an engagement opportunity with two University of Toronto Sustainability Students, to partner with Air Canada on their master’s Capstone project. These students worked with the Steering Committee over a four-month period to complete a full life cycle analysis on our plastic cups with a final analysis delivered at the end.  

Reuse and upcycling  

Since 2017, Air Canada has found creative ways to recycle our uniforms. We have donated discontinued uniforms to organizations that can help put them to good use. Air Canada has on-going partnerships with organizations including Diabetes Canada, Brands for Canada, Dress for Success Toronto, and Working Gear to repurpose uniforms in workwear for low-income groups. Continuing in 2018, we partnered with various organizations including Viking Recycling and Debrand Services to recycle legacy uniforms that could not be repurposed. The stock was recycled into stuffing for punching bags that were donated to community centers, converted into alternative items such as automotive stuffing, or incinerated to generate energy.   

Air Canada has also teamed up with the Syrian Canadian Foundation to distribute gently used business class duvets to several social service agencies that assist Syrian newcomers and other Canadians in need. Following dry cleaning, most of our duvets are re-used onboard, but those that have any wear and tear from service are removed for donation. Prior to COVID-19, Air Canada also worked with Clean the World Canada, a not-for-profit organization, to recycle and repurpose our unused amenity kits and individual unopened products that were collected from business class.   

Over the last four years, we have worked to create partnerships with organizations to promote circularity measures in our operations. Air Canada is part of a project to repurpose used aircraft cabin materials for bags and accessories by Canadian company Mariclaro. Handmade in Ontario, the newest black leather items are crafted from seat covers that needed to be replaced on five of Air Canada’s Boeing 777 aircraft. Also available are duffle bags and purses that incorporate blue cabin interior material into their design.   


In 2015, Air Canada also launched a new battery and cell phone recycling program into our operations. The program disposes of spent batteries from assorted handheld devices and tools and improves efforts to recycle hazardous waste and cell phones. We also have various electronic waste disposal bins installed throughout our facilities to further promote responsible disposal practices.  

Please highlight the key impacts and results of the mentioned initiatives

Despite the impact of the global pandemic, we are well on our way to achieving our 2020 Corporate Waste objectives to divert 20% of our waste in our offices, facilities and Maple Leaf Lounges and achieve a 50% recycling rate for approved items onboard domestic flights. 

On the ground 

In relation to our target of 20% waste diversion, we are 71% of the way there in offices and facilities and 100% of the way there for the Maple Leaf Lounges. By the end of 2019, Air Canada achieved a: 

  • 52.75% diversion rate for our office and facilities and have diverted over 6,200 tonnes of material from our facilities since 2017 and (see Figure 2); 
  • 78.35% diversion rate for Maple Leaf Lounges and diverted over 805 tonnes of material from our lounges since 2017 (see Figure 3). 

In the air 

Air Canada achieved the on-board target of recycling 50% for approved items onboard domestic flights. In 2019, we reached a 51% recycling efficiency and have diverted over 655 tonnes of recyclables from our aircrafts (see Figure 4). 

Single use plastic  

In January 2019, Air Canada launched the #bonvoyageplastic Campaign, which started with the removal of the plastic stir sticks and replaced with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified bamboo alternative. To date, over 38 million plastic items have been removed including the replacement of plastic packaging on most of our complementary items for biodegradable plastic and paper packaging (see Figure 5). To date, the following product changes have been made: 

  • Removed 35M plastic stir sticks (moved to an FSC bamboo option). 
  • Removed 750K outer plastic bags from the books and crayons in the kid’s kits. 
  • Removed 450K outer plastic packing from the ACM & Rouge kids kits. 
  • Replaced the outer plastic bag on 1M J Amenity kits with a small security tab.
  • Replaced the outer plastic bag on 1M PY Amenity kits with a small security tab. 
  • Replaced the plastic packaging for 6.6M Y earphones with biodegradable plastic. 
  • Replaced the plastic packaging for 2.7M J earphones with paper packaging. 
  • Replaced the plastic packaging from 320K signature slippers with a paper band. 

Refillable water stations were also installed in select areas of our Toronto and Montreal facilities, with the goal of replacing the need for company-provided single-use plastic bottles. Water refill stations will also be installed in facilities across the country soon to prevent thousands of plastic water bottles from going into the landfill. Today we are advancing on our plastic waste reduction strategy and plan to continue removing and replacing single-use plastic items. 

Reuse and upcycling 

As the flagship carrier of Canada, we are also proud to donate to community and charitable organizations whenever possible, thereby reducing our waste footprint through reuse and helping those in need. Since 2017, over 142 tonnes of items have been donated to partner organizations.  

Air Canada has also successfully donated, reused, or recycled almost 400 tonnes of textiles.  To date, we’ve achieved the following totals for textiles:  

  • 122 tonnes of employee uniform pieces collected for recycling or redistributed to partner organizations (see Figure 6). 
  • 28 tonnes of duvets were donated to the Syrian Canadian Foundation (see Figure 7). 
  • 600 seat covers have also been dry-cleaned and given another life through our partnership with Marie-Claro. 
  • 50 boxes of unused items from open amenity kits were sent to Clean the World Canada. 


In addition, electronic waste and battery collection has steadily increased over the years. Since 2018, over five tonnes of batteries were collected from across our stations and recycled. We’ve also diverted an additional 17 tonnes of e-waste from the landfill. 

Please describe how your company is building awareness for the selected SDG

Air Canada is committed to educating, informing, and engaging both our employees and customers on our waste strategy. Every year we host a series of events and send regular communications to share annual results and our progress in achieving targets.  

Employee engagement in the workplace 

Notably, our employees are encouraged on a quarterly basis to continue practicing responsible waste disposal by segregating their recyclables and organics from the waste stream in designated bins. We send out creative communications to specific facilities to report on their progress and inform them of changes in our waste disposal systems. When we introduce new programs, including new sorting systems, our team is also available on site to train and educate staff on how to properly segregate waste in bins and interpret signage. Over the last two years, we have organized dozens of activities across our facilities to promote awareness and engage staff in waste reduction strategies. 

An employee Green Teams pilot was also launched prior to the global pandemic to give a platform to employees who are committed to making Air Canada more environmentally sustainable. The program gives employees an opportunity to engage with sustainability in the workplace by educating their coworkers, providing solutions on environmental issues, and impacting change within their respective branch or base. These Green Teams are meant to promote a greater diversity of bottom-up ideas, more support for our sustainability initiatives will be promoted, and a higher compliance rate for waste initiatives. Unfortunately, the full program launch has been temporarily deferred due to COVID-19. 

Sustainability Fund and Scholarship Program 

Since 2016, Air Canada has also engaged employees around sustainability issues through our Sustainability Scholarship program. The annual Sustainability Scholarships are awarded to the children of Air Canada employees entering post-secondary education and are funded through the revenues of sustainable initiatives at Air Canada. To date, the program has been primarily funded through the Air Canada Maintenance team’s metal recycling proceeds. Throughout the year metal is collected in a bailer and sold for scrap with local recyclers in order to recover and reinvest proceeds. Applicants are asked to submit an application that demonstrates how issues relating to sustainability are integrated into his/her educational pursuits and the top ten students are awarded with $2,000 for post-secondary studies. Such personal recognition is hoped to engage the winners as well as their families and their colleagues at Air Canada and invest in our youth to continue prioritizing environmental initiatives (see Figure 8). 

Employee and Community Engagement 

Annually, Air Canada participates in Waste Reduction Week, a Canada-wide initiative aimed at promoting waste reduction. Since 2018, we have organized activities and supported the national campaign with Air Canada-specific messaging. Air Canada is also building its reputation through partnerships with organizations to divert as many used items as possible through reuse and donation.  

On Earth Day, April 22, 2019, Air Canada announced a partnership with 4Ocean, an American-based for-Profit Company, founded in 2015. The partnership allows us to align with a respected organization that activates on plastic cleanup efforts and provides an opportunity to engage employees and speaks to the “Do More” part of our “Leave Less, Do More” environment strategy. 4Oceans focuses on ocean clean ups in Florida, Haiti and Bali while creating a global economy that pays local fishermen to collect ocean plastic that is recycled and given new life as sustainable products. As part of our sponsorship agreement, Air Canada sponsored 2 shoreline cleanups in Clearwater, FL and Richmond, BC. The first cleanup in Clearwater, FL was on July 22nd and had over 1000 community volunteers and Air Canada employees and their families. The second cleanup took place on September 22nd in Richmond, BC and had over 350 community volunteers and Air Canada employees, and the local MLA Teresa Wat who spoke about the initiative in the legislature. Environmental Affairs had an educational booth at both cleanups, providing the public with information on Air Canada’s environmental and sustainability programs. Public and employee sentiment on the cleanup and partnership has been extremely positive, with many individuals thanking Air Canada for “Doing More” to clean shorelines (see Figure 9).    

Lastly, all our initiatives, including the 2020 Corporate Waste Strategy are also available publicly through our Leave Less Do More website. Air Canada encourages customers to engage and provide feedback on our initiatives. We have also shared our goals and waste reduction initiatives in company-wide communications and on our internal website. Air Canada developed a variety of tools that employees and customers can use to answer their questions about proper waste disposal and stay up to date on our progress.

Please outline the plans your organization has for being committed to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in response to COVID-19

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Air Canada has been rapidly responding to the operational impacts of border closures and government policies with reduction in flight operations, station closures and manpower adjustments. Meanwhile, many environmental programs remain in place despite challenges faced by the company. 

In the short term, Air Canada has adapted its waste strategy by focusing on waste reduction through diversion and donation of redundant products. On April 14th, 85 discontinued event banners were put to good use by keeping them out of landfills and donating them to partners at The Neighborhood Organization (Toronto, ON), who turned them into 2,500 masks for healthcare workers at the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, ON (see Figure 10).  

Earlier this year, the Air Canada Foundation also worked with Canadian food rescue organization Second Harvest’s to redistribute fresh food items from Air Canada’s in-flight kitchens since the majority of its international and U.S. trans-border flights were suspended as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. So far, we have donated more than 332,631 kg of food from April to September 2020, which represents more than 7 million meals. In total, 53 organizations were supported.  

As we are reaching the end point of Air Canada’s 2020 Corporate Waste Reduction Strategy, we are currently working on revising our Corporate Waste Strategy and will reassess our targets considering impacts of the COVID pandemic. In the mid to long term, we intend on integrating circular economy principals in our waste strategy and are fully committed to supporting initiatives that aim to replace single use plastics (SUP) with alternative products that are safe, hygienic, and more environmentally sustainable.  We are committed to reducing the amount of waste we generate and are continuously evaluating our environmental footprint on the communities we serve. It’s time to close the gap between our current practices, our rapidly shifting global economy, and the more stringent waste reduction standards that are emerging.