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I understand why prepared food (e.g. the main meal or the salad) has to be thrown out if uneaten, but what about all the pre-packaged stuff, like the butter and/or jam, cheese bites, chocolate biscuits, yoghurt, milk, water, orange juice etc.? Once the flight attendants collect your tray at the end of a meal, does it all just get thrown out or is it somehow checked and recycled or donated?

I'm guessing there are quarantine laws and health regulations that might make this a pain, especially internationally, but it also seems like an enormous amount of wastage. I, for instance, never eat the yoghurt or use the butter.

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This is something I've also wondered on several occasions. (I'm a bit pessimistic though as it's easiest to throw everything collected from passengers to the garbage bin.) – Jonik Aug 19 '13 at 17:01
    
Aegean claims in their food boxes that they are given to a charity. – Davidmh Jun 13 at 11:51
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I used to work at Manchester airport clearing out the inflight trays. Usually anything that was still sealed was taken by the staff (us) or put into a communal section for anyone to take. I got some caviar from a first class flight once! – Matt Wilko Jun 14 at 8:22
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Short answer: No, it will be collected by the caterer upon arrival.

Long answer, Airlines do not actually handle catering, the catering companies do handle this. Airlines will have a catering partner in every airport they operate flights to.

In domestic flights where the airplanes is scheduled to have a few sectors assignment (pairing in airlines terminology) sometimes the outbound flight is catered for more that one sector at once. For example if the pairing contains short flights (domestic usually) like going from A to B then back to A the caterer in A will provide double catering to the crew which is usually juices in short sectors, the crew will use the same catering in both legs, but these juice cartons/bottles are ok to reuse and they are not touched directly by passengers. Airlines do the double catering to save money and to make the ground time between flights shorter. Anyway this won't work in long international sectors.

In long pairings that contains mid/long haul flights where the aircraft will be catered in each sector, usually each sector will be covered by a different caterer, each caterer will offload the previous used carts and supply the flight with new full carts. You can never know what does the caterer do to the excess food. Each caterer have its own policy depending on the company and local regulations. In the company I work the major caterer for the company do NOT reuse any items, they simply throw it. I have a friend who worked there he told me once that the employees are allowed to take from the returned items on their own responsibility. Do not know about other airlines, but some items like soda cans for example are safe to reuse, I guess they donate it or even resell it!

One last thing, airlines do not expect the catering on board to be returned, they supply the flight with food and beverages enough to passengers and crew and may be supply few extra meals just in case.

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I believe you are answering about bottles of juice that never leave the cart, extra packages of salad dressing the crew did not give to passengers etc. I believe the OP is asking about packaged items on their meal tray that were given to them, but that they left sealed. Is there any distinction when collecting trays after the meal between untouched sealed items, and general garbage? – Kate Gregory Aug 19 '13 at 17:51
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Thanks for the detailed answer @HaLaBi. I was hoping that asking them to take items off my tray before they hand it to me would make a difference (or even declining the meal entirely if I'm not that hungry), but I guess not! – Sam Aug 20 '13 at 3:19
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It might not directly reduce waste, but over time if more people start refusing any type of food then caterers are likely to start packing less of it. – bdsl Jun 13 at 14:34

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