Old airplanes find an afterlife as recycled resource

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SPECIAL REPORT / Aircraft makers are increasingly turning to retired airplanes as a source of metals and other materials that can be recycled, possibly to fly again in new generations of aircraft.

With 12,000 passenger planes due to be retired over the next 20 years, rising prices for metals and other components are giving manufacturers an incentive to recapture materials from old hulks, thousands of which are already parked in deserts, left to decay near landing strips or cannibalised for parts.

Aircraft do not fall under EU disposal rules as cars and ships do. But by stepping up recycling and reuse efforts, the industry appears to be delivering on the EU’s resource-efficient Europe 2020 strategy to reduce the environmental footprint of manufacturing and dependence on imports of raw materials – including cobalt, titanium, aluminium and nickel used in planes.

European giant Airbus and its American competitor Boeing eventually hope to reclaim 85% to 95% of aircraft parts, metals and other materials from retired models, and several producers of regional jets – such as Europe’s Fokker, Brazil’s Embraer and Canada’s Bombardier – have committed to do the same.

“A few years ago when the industry was in a depressed economic condition and most of the scrapping yards were full of waste … and the value of materials were very low,” said Olivier Malavallon, who is in charge of end-of-life aircraft management for Airbus.

“Now there are quite increased and there is a strong interest in reusing as much as possible wastes, such as aluminium, by the industry into new aircraft manufacturing,” Malavallon told EurActiv by telephone.

Some industry efforts are not new: Airlines and manufacturers have long stripped reusable parts and components – like landing gear, tyres and electronics – from retired planes. Metals have been broken up and sold for scrap for use in other industries.

What is more novel is an industry-wide effort to improve standards and safety, while constructing tomorrow’s aircraft using more recycled and recyclable materials.

Mining revenues and metals

The aviation industry has more than altruistic reasons to make the shift: Cash-strapped airlines want to squeeze every cent out of planes, even when they retire them. And manufacturers have a vested interest in seeking new and more affordable raw materials to handle an expected surge in aircraft production over the next 30 years.

Metals prices have slipped in recent months, but the World Bank forecasts that rising fuel costs and demand in China – which consumes 43% or the global metals production – will mean higher prices for many metals in the near term.

Three years ago, said Malavallon, “the value of aluminium and titanium were so low that as soon as you started cutting the aircraft you were losing money. Today the situation has changed.”

Plane manufacturers are also under mounting pressure from regulators and customers to produce aircraft that are quieter, more fuel efficient and more sustainable. They are quick to publicise the environmental benefits of end-of-life recycling:

  • Airbus, for example, estimates that recycling an airplane’s aluminium is 90% more energy efficient than raw production.
  • Recycling and re-use help lower exposure to supply vulnerability of rare earth metals, titanium and other core materials that are derived from growing competitors such as Russia and China, or conflict-prone regions in developing countries.
  • Recycling also reduces the population of abandoned planes at airports or old military sites that are not just eyesores, but potential environmental hazards.
  • The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, or AFRA, was created in 2005 and only recently have manufacturers become more aggressive in shifting to materials in airplane seats, carpeting and other furnishings that can one day be recycled.

Safety first

Still, the end-of-life re-use has its limitations. The precision required in constructing frames, bodies and engine parts still requires virgin alloys or raw metals, said Derk-Jan van Heerden, managing director of Aircraft End-of-Life Solutions (AELS) B.V. in the Netherlands, one of the few EU companies specialising in aviation parts and recycling.

“In the aviation sector there is one thing that is more important than everything, and that is safety,” van Heerden told EurActiv in a telephone interview. “We have very, very strict quality systems in place, and therefore all the material that enters the production process needs to be of a certain quality and there [can be no or] very, very small deviations from the standards that are agreed.”

The market is another challenge for the handful of European companies that recycle old metals. A more relaxed regulatory environment and lower overall costs make the United States the main destination for airplane disassembly and recycling – van Heerden estimates that three-in-five end-of-life aircraft in Europe “flies outside of Europe.”

Life after retirement

Passenger aircraft typically have a 25-year service life. Once retired from passenger fleets, some are converted for cargo use, others stripped of parts that are still useful.

More controversially, aircraft nearing the safe end of their lives are sold to developing countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world’s worst aviation safety record, was historically a dumping ground for ageing aircraft bought on the cheap by African national carriers.

That is changing. The International Civil Aviation Organization is supporting the Africa Strategic Improvement Action plan to work on air safety and modernisation. Meanwhile, western aircraft manufacturers have keen on working with African carriers to finance modern fleets. Ethiopian Airlines, for instance, was among the first in the world to take delivery of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner series.

These developments mean that older planes are heading to the graveyard rather than to developing markets.

Since AFRA was founded in 2005, its members have dismantled more than 7,000 aircraft. While the numbers are small compared to generations of scrapped planes lying around the world, the organisation sees significant potential.

“It has been calculated that the market for aircraft parts is approximately $2 billion [€1.55 billion], but it is AFRA's firm belief that even greater financial value can be extracted from end-of-life activity,” explains the website of the Washington, DC-based organisation.

The hazards of disposal

Officials at Airbus and Boeing say their newest aircraft are designed with a recyclable afterlife in mind.

Still, there are problems and dismantling aircraft is not entirely free of hazards. Batteries, asbestos, chemicals in fire-retardants, high-pressure oxygen systems and furnishing materials pose potential health and environmental risks if not properly handled – and the cost of doing so make it easier to dump components than recycle them. AFRA establishes guidelines for its members for the safe disposal of waste products that in many cases are not governed by law.

The EU, for example, does not set recycling mandates for aircraft the way it does for cars and ships. The EU is preparing to tighten regulations on ship recycling to prevent the dumping of old hulks in developing countries.

There are other potential hazards. The newer, more durable and lighter materials like carbon fibre being used in today’s aircraft production also could have long-term environmental drawbacks.

“Although using recycled carbon fibre is far less energy intensive and hence less expensive, the facilities able to recycle on a commercial basis are few and far between. The expensive alloys found on engines such as nickel and cobalt also require highly specialised facilities,” notes the International Air Transport Association, an industry trade body.

“The resins they contain are nearly impossible to dispose of cleanly,” IATA also notes.

Aircraft graveyards are scatted across the desserts of the Southwestern United States, from Texas to Arizona and California. One of the largest – the ‘bone yard’ – is located near Tuscon, Arizona, where more than 4,000 military and civilian aircraft are parked in an area equivalent to more than 1,400 football pitches.

Despite the thousands of aircraft due to be retired in the decades ahead, the metals than can be recovered from old planes is negligible – what Airbus’ Malavallon calls a “drop in the ocean” compared to automotive metals.

At Aircraft End-of-Life Solutions in the Dutch town of Delft, van Heerden estimates that melting down several hundreds airliners produces 60,000 metric tonnes of aluminium, while a typical an aluminium smelter needs a minimum 150,000 to 200,000 metric tonnes to be profitable.

“If you would collect all aircraft aluminium that is recycled in one place in the world, you would not even have enough to operate an aluminium smelter,” he said.

Timeline: 
  • 14 Dec. 2012: Platform for Resource Efficiency meets for the second time, to present the first conclusions of its work
  • Summer 2013: Platform expected to issue a first set of recommendations for short-term measures that can be adopted in about 12 months
  • By 2014: Commission to revise 2020 recycling targets set in the Waste Framework Directive
  • Mid-2014: Mandate ends, the platform makes recommendations for the longer term
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