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The environmental impact and economic advantages of aircraft recycling

Main pic caption: Aircraft recycling plays a crucial role in minimising the aviation industry’s impact on the environment.
photo_camera Main pic caption: Aircraft recycling plays a crucial role in minimising the aviation industry’s impact on the environment.

Mario Pierobon looks at how the aircraft recycling process works, its environmental impact and its economic advantages.

Aircraft recycling deals with the process of sustainable and environmentally friendly dismantling of decommissioned aircraft. The main goal is to recover valuable materials and components for reuse, recycling or repurpose. The process involves careful disassembly, sorting, cleaning and processing to recover metal, plastic and other materials from aircraft. As the aviation industry increasingly pursues sustainability initiatives, best practices for aircraft recycling are ever more important to be familiarised with.

Aircraft recycling process

Lee McConnellogue, chief executive of ecube, defines aircraft recycling as the expert removal of components for reuse in aviation or recycling outside of the industry. “Efficiency and precision are the main factors involved in any disassembly project, where anything from 300-1,500 components get removed as part of a project,” he says.

“We benefit from a whole host of expert engineers. This means one can guarantee the quality of the parts they extract for reuse. Many of our team come from airlines, MROs or the OEM. They are industry veterans, often with years of maintenance experience behind them. On average, aircraft are dismantled in three to five weeks though, in some recent cases, projects have been completed in two weeks, all following the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association’s (AFRA) accreditation best practices.”

The goal of aircraft recycling is to minimise the impact on the environment by diverting waste from landfills, reducing the need for new materials in production processes and promoting the reuse of resources in various sectors such as artwork and furniture, according to Brent Webb, president of AFRA.

“Best practices for dismantling and recycling aircraft are outlined in AFRA’s Best Management Practice (BMP) for Managing Used Aircraft Parts and Assemblies. The guidelines include detailed instructions for managing materials recovered from aircraft at the end of their useful life,” Webb says. “Best practices revolve around facility management that includes location, compliance, safety, storage, segregation, inventory, process flow and transportation. Training, on the other hand, ensures that staff are adequately trained on the best dismantling and recycling practices.”

Additional best practices for aircraft recycling include maintaining material records, transactions and reference manuals. Proper tool handling and maintenance is also needed as are inspection, segregation, containerisation and shipping procedures. AFRA’s best practices also focus on implementing measures to safeguard the environment during recycling, emphasising transparency and accountability to the customer, adopting proper procedures for unusable parts disposal, and the use of key performance indicators (KPI) to monitor and evaluate recycling performance, according to Webb.

“Following these practices contributes to a more sustainable industry. Aircraft recycling operations can be conducted in a way that maximises resource recovery, reduces environmental impact and ensures the safety and health of workers involved in the process,” he says.

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Recycling old aircraft reduces the need for new raw materials.
Recycling old aircraft reduces the need for new raw materials.
Environmental impact

If a high-quality disassembly is carried out correctly, it will support an organisation’s environmental credentials, because reusing parts reduces the need for energy and rare materials to create new ones, according to McConnellogue.

“At ecube, our motto is ‘reuse, repurpose, recycle’. Managing our environmental impact is not only important for the planet, but also essential for the financial sustainability of our supply chain and business,” he says. “In 2023 we returned 48,521 components to the flying fleet through our ‘reuse’ programme and, in all, more than 110 tonnes of material were repurposed with a further 1,600+ tonnes recycled.”

Aircraft recycling plays a crucial role in minimising the aviation industry’s impact on the environment. From reduced pollution and proper recycling to the disposal of hazardous materials, there are a number of factors key to preventing environmental pollution, according to Webb. “Responsible management of fuels, oils, hydraulic fluids and batteries helps reduce air, water and soil contamination, improving environmental health,” he explains. “Additionally, recycling old aircraft reduces the need for new raw materials, cutting down on resource-heavy manufacturing and fostering sustainable aviation practices.”

Another benefit is energy saving, explains Webb. “Recycling recovers materials such as aluminium, titanium, steel and composites, thereby reducing the extraction and processing of energy-intensive raw materials,” he says. “This preserves resources, contributing to energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Webb continues: “Aviation recycling focuses on maximising resource recovery and reducing waste. Facilities dedicated to this process carefully dismantle aircraft, sorting materials for reuse, recycling or safe disposal. This approach significantly cuts down the waste that ends up in landfills, conserving space and lessening the environmental burden of waste management. The practice of recycling aircraft is vital for environmental sustainability as it curtails pollution, conserves energy and reduces waste.”

Economic advantages

According to McConnellogue, reusing parts is convenient and reliable. Additionally, delays in generating new parts make reuse more attractive to airlines. “They are increasingly turning to reused parts, which often cost up to 40 per cent less than new ones,” he says. “We promote responsible disassembly of aircraft and ensure as many parts as possible are re-used in the circular economy. Then it is all about recycling what’s left behind for use outside of aviation.”

Indeed, aviation recycling offers numerous economic benefits, according to Webb. “The first advantage is cost savings. Recycling promotes the recovery and reuse of precious materials, reducing the need to acquire new resources. This leads to a large cost reduction for both manufacturers and aircraft operators,” he says. “Recycled materials, such as metals and composites, can be sold to manufacturers or other industries, providing an additional source of revenue for aviation disassembly facilities. In addition, by optimising resource use and reducing waste generation, aircraft recycling enhances economic efficiency. This reduces the costs associated with waste disposal and landfill fees, while adopting sustainable business practices.”

Another benefit of the aviation recycling industry is that it creates job opportunities for workers involved in dismantling, sorting, processing and selling recycled materials, emphasises Webb. “This benefits local economies and supports job growth in the recycling sector. Overall, aviation recycling offers cost savings, revenue generation, economic efficiency and job creation, making it an economically feasible and sustainable practice,” he concludes.

This feature was first published in MRO Management – May/June 2024. To read the magazine in full, click here.

 

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