Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How do they recycle an airplane?

European Jet Plane Recycling Center

Did you ever wonder what happens to a passenger plane when it can't fly anymore? Excluding cases such as the Concorde, which will be retained in museums for posterity, today they mostly sit around in plane graveyards, such as in the Western deserts of the United States of America. But what is crowded Europe to do with the increasing number of aircraft which are ready for retirement? To meet this need, the first ever aircraft recycling center has been opened at the Châteauroux-Déols airport in central France on the 6th of June 2005.

So just how do you recycle an airplane?

The first step is to detach recoverable parts, such as motors, seats, landing gears, moving parts on the wings, and avionics. Next, you have to clean out and collect the various chemistries in the fuel and lubrication systems, remove the toxics in batteries, brakes, and pyrotechnical components, safely depressurize the oxygen systems and so forth. Then, you remove any remaining non-metallic parts before the real fun starts: breaking the plane into manageable pieces for transport, and ultimately into pieces small enough to go through the separation and recovery processes such as air and flotation separation. Approximately 80% of the metals are recoverable in this process.

Some interesting airplane recycling facts:

  • After the removal of the reusable pieces and decontamination of the chemistries, the remaining bulk of the airplane has a value of €150/ton.

  • 25 to 35% of an aircraft is non-metallic materials, including flooring, insulation, plastics, glass and rubber.

  • Of the metals, 85% is alloyed aluminum, 10% is steel, 3% titanium and 2% copper.

The Châteauroux-Déols airport, originally an American miliary installation following the Second World War, was chosen for its central location. It is already a center for aircraft maintenance and repair. The new recycling center is built according the French standard for installations classified for the protection of the environment: for example, the dismantling field is underlain by an impervious liner beneath the concrete and liquids run to a collection system with a hydrocarbon separator. The site is in the process of obtaining certification to the ISO14001 Standard for Environmental Management Systems (which cannot be obtained until the facility has demonstrated some months of operation). The facility is currently scaled to dismantle two planes at a time, with the potential to expand foreseen.