Stockholm Arlanda airport is home to one of the more unusual sights in aviation. An old Boeing 747-200 sits brightly painted in its grounds having been converted into a 25-room hostel. Not all discarded planes have such a happy retirement, however. Many lie abandoned in remote corners of the world or have been sent to landfills.
Such poor prospects could soon be a thing of the past. According to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) up to 12,000 aircraft could be scrapped in the next 20 years. By 2016, it aims to perfect processes that will recycle 90% of an aircraft. Currently, around 80–85% is the maximum, but this is up from less than 50% just a few years ago. Air France agrees with the estimate and is now working on dismantling its old aircraft rather than selling them on.
But more airlines need to get involved. Record orders mean more aircraft will be scrapped especially as there are fewer markets to sell on old models. Recycling aircraft could be important to airline business going forward and will form an integral part of aviation’s environmental plans.
The value of a decommissioned aircraft varies enormously. Engines and avionics in good working order are obviously worth something. But if an aircraft can’t fly, an airline may well end up spending money as there are no companies offering mobile recycling facilities. Ships can get towed but aviation doesn’t have that luxury.
An important part of the valuation process is the paperwork. Good service records will up the value of parts. If an aircraft has passed through several hands and records have been lost then an aircraft loses a lot of its value. Aviation’s accounting practises mean that stored aircraft are recognized as assets long after they can economically or safely fly, further delaying decommissioning and reducing the aircraft’s value as scrap.
Another potential pitfall is impending legislation. There is nothing specific to aviation in any of the major markets yet but the European Union does have strict regulations regarding product life cycles in other areas, such as automobiles and white goods.
Olivier Malavallon, PAMELA-life (Process for Advanced Management of End of Life Aircraft) Project Director, Environmental Affairs, Airbus, says selective dismantling can maximize the value of materials sold for further recycling while insuring compliance to applicable environmental, health & safety regulations. “However, dedicated facilities and specific approvals are required to perform these tasks in developed countries like Europe,” he notes. “The only viable and safe way for aircraft owners is to get the aircraft dismantled in an approved centre.”
IATA is working now with all interested parties to enshrine best practices before legislation hits so that the regulators can follow industry guidelines. Currently, approaches to dismantling an aircraft vary with some placing a greater emphasis on protecting the aviation-grade materials. Harmonizing working standards will be an important step forward.
The manufacturers will obviously have an important role to play. Airbus started the ball rolling in 2005 with PAMELA, the first full scale project researching dismantling a commercial jet. PAMELA successfully tested recycling techniques from other industries, developing best practices in the process. The manufacturer is a comparative novice in recycling aircraft though. Since starting production more than 40 years ago it is estimated that fewer than 400 Airbus aircraft have been scrapped.
Since 2007 though, the entire range of Airbus aircraft have been taken apart to test the recycling options. When PAMELA began dismantling an Airbus A300, it found it was able to reduce the amount of material sent to landfill to just 15%. Airbus has now moved on to TARMAC-Aerosave (Tarbes Advanced Recycling and Maintenance Aircraft) in partnership with five other companies. The OEM claims that TARMAC—which aims to move the findings of PAMELA on to an industrial scale—has outperformed its initial targets.
Airbus’s endeavors have also made clear the work left to do. TARMAC predicts it will handle 11 aircraft in 2011 when actually its facilities are capable of up to 30 operations. Clearly, aircraft recycling is in need of further marketing efforts. Also revealing is that the 15% of an aircraft going to landfill is largely cabin interior.
The major manufacturers are all working on the interior problem but breakthroughs are scarce. Boeing recently came up with recyclable carpet tiles. Southwest is testing the idea and the product could be commercially available later in the year.
But many of the materials used in the interior still aren’t suited to recycling or simply aren’t worth much when they are processed. Airbus is looking to redesign its cabin interiors with a view to recycling but in the meantime is suggesting that storage is the preferable option until such time as new technology makes their break-up possible.
“Glass fiber is used in much of the cabin lining,” explains Malavallon. “Basically, it has no recycling value whatsoever. There are other issues too, such as the chemicals used to make materials flame retardant.”
The latest aircraft will not necessarily be any easier to recycle. Materials such as carbon fiber have yet to find a commercially active salvage market. Although using recycled carbon fiber 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 specialized facilities.
And ironically, the very composites that make an aircraft lighter and improve fuel efficiency are also very difficult to deal with environmentally. The resins they contain are nearly impossible to dispose of cleanly. Malavallon insists that recycling is improving all the time and the final by-products are getting close to original materials. The bigger problem, he suggests, is identifying the right customers for the final by-product.
Like new Airbus aircraft, the Boeing 787 has actually been designed with its afterlife in mind. Boeing has worked with its manufacturing sites and suppliers to collect carbon fiber scraps and develop processes to return this material back into aerospace manufacturing. Recovered 787 carbon fibers are being used to build several prototype aircraft interior components that are currently undergoing testing. It has also tested the feasibility of using recycled carbon fiber for tooling used in the production of aerospace parts.
Recycling new materials could be lucrative in the future. Raw materials are going up in price and an aircraft will remain a valuable asset at the end of its commercial life. Current airframes aren’t necessarily so rewarding. The aluminum on an old Boeing 747 weighs around 70 tons, just under half the aircraft’s total weight. But aluminum’s price—like many commodities—is volatile. Not so long ago the price was low enough to make dismantling an old 747 a less than attractive proposition. Fortunately, there has been an upward shift. Given the CO2 savings from using recycled aluminum as opposed to working the raw material, there are obvious environmental benefits too.
The finances are also affected by shipping. Many aircraft are scrapped or rusting away in parts of the world with few recycling facilities. The financial and environmental cost of getting them to the requisite sites for break-up is too great to justify.
Several initiatives will tackle the challenges and put aircraft recycling on a firmer footing. For example, there are also plans being headed by Airbus to establish a network of recycling centers. Malavallon concludes by noting that the industry must prepare for a change in the aircraft end of life paradigm. “The success of TARMAC proves that attitudes are already changing because an aircraft remains valuable even once it has finished flying. There is an opportunity to develop a real business here.”