• Print version

End-of-life aircraft recycling offers high grade materials



TARMAC Aerosave is exploiting an innovative system for the smart dismantling and recycling of end-of-life aircraft. It targets the 6,000 aircraft due to retire over the next 15 years.

The launch of the Airbus A300 in the early 1970s revolutionised aircraft manufacturing, demonstrating cost and time savings from producing aircraft components separately, rather than building an entire aircraft at one site. This iconic aircraft was again at the centre of a major revolution in the aviation sector when, in March 2006, Airbus launched an innovative experiment in the dismantling and recycling of end-of- life aircraft.

The Process for Advanced Management of End of Life of Aircraft (PAMELA) project, set out to demonstrate that an aircraft’s components could be safely dismantled and recycled for reuse in the aviation or other sectors. The success of the project, which was co-financed by the EU’s LIFE- Environment programme, led the establishment of a commercial recycling business for aircraft that offers high quality materials for reuse in aircraft manufacture.

Life after death

Aircraft normally have a working life of 20 to 30 years. Once they reach their end-of-life, passenger aircraft are generally either converted for use in freight transport, or stockpiled in aircraft ‘boneyards’ or at airports, often with little consideration for safety.

These aircraft can be brought back into service if demand increases, or they may be broken down and the parts reused. However, before PAMELA, this was generally a haphazard scrap metal operation resulting in some 45% of the weight of an aircraft going to landfill. Aircraft scrapping could also be a poorly-controlled process, with insufficient attention paid to the handling of potentially hazardous wastes, and secondhand parts re-entering the supply chain without proper monitoring.

PAMELA’s objective was to demonstrate that an aircraft’s afterlife need not follow this pattern and that an aircraft could be safely dismantled and reused or recycled as secondary raw materials. “An aircraft is not a unique form of waste material,” explains Olivier Malavallon, PAMELA – Life Project Director. “What is important is what you do with the material and, in particular, how you treat it.”

Although aircraft are made of materials that can be recycled or reused in a number of ways, prior to PAMELA there were no standardised procedures. PAMELA sought to fill this void, firstly by ensuring compliance with relevant waste regulation, and then, on a voluntary basis, by working towards achieving a target recycling rate of 85%, comparable to the EU End- of-Life Vehicles Directive (2000/53/ EC), which does not currently apply to aircraft.

A three-stage process

PAMELA followed a systematic approach, dividing the aircraft’s end-of-life process into three stages: decommissioning, disassembly, and smart and selective dismantling. The first stage involved cleaning and decontamination of the aircraft, with the removal of hazardous substances, and flammable or explosive materials.

During this stage, which was generally not part of existing aircraft scrapping operations, the demonstration aircraft, a first generation Airbus A300, was also thoroughly assessed, with parts listed and equipment identified as being salvageable or not. At the end of this stage, the weight of the plane had been reduced by around 18 000 kg, largely due to the removal of liquids such as fuel and water, which are not considered in the recycling ratio.

During the disassembly stage, PAMELA removed the reusable parts from the aircraft, such as the engines and landing gear. These were then checked and certified so they could be used as spare parts for aircraft in service. The weight of the demonstration aircraft was reduced by a further 13,500 kg during this stage.

In principle, after these first two stages, an aircraft could still be put back into service, subject to acquiring the relevant flight certification. But a decision to move to the final dismantling stage is irrevocable, as at this point the aircraft officially becomes waste.

Breakthrough in reuse of material

Although PAMELA applied a more systematic and thorough approach to decommissioning and disassembly than had existed previously, the real innovation emerged in the third stage. Here, the entire aircraft shell was systematically dismantled. By volume, aluminium made up the largest portion of the material recovered, which also included titanium alloys, steel, copper, plastics, foam and textiles.

PAMELA carefully sorted these waste streams, even separating the aluminium into alloys of different types. The aluminium was then sent for ‘re-fusion’, using a process that generated aluminium of a high enough quality for reuse in aircraft manufacture. This was a real breakthrough, as previously it was not thought that aluminium extracted from old aircraft could be used for such a purpose.

In total, during the dismantling stage, PAMELA extracted 61,000 kg of reusable material from the aircraft. This meant that at the end of the three stages, only 13% of the original weight of the aircraft had to be classified as non-recoverable waste and sent to landfill.

New business takes off

PAMELA successfully demonstrated that the environmental impact of aircraft dismantling can be significantly reduced. Thanks to a thorough and selective sorting process, the project demonstrated that 85% or more of all recovered materials could be sold through regulated recovery channels, with up to 70% going back to industry, including the aerospace industry, creating its first “cradle to cradle” closed loop.

This success also presented an interesting commercial opportunity, which subsequently led to the establishment of a new business venture, TARMAC Aerosave, the first company dedicated to dismantling end-of-life aircraft in an environmentally-friendly way. A joint venture of Airbus and waste specialist SITA France, this new business became operational in 2009.

Located near Tarbes airport in southwest France, TARMAC’s state-of-the-art plant has a capacity to dismantle up to 30 large aircraft per year. In the first two years of activity, it has already processed a dozen aircraft of all types, including the Airbus A300, A310, A300-600, A320, A340, DC9, Boeing 737 and Boeing 777. This has allowed it to refine and demonstrate dismantling techniques for a whole range of aircraft.

The company aims to recycle or re-use up to 85% of the parts and materials from the aircraft it processes, with the full dismantling process taking from one to three months. “This is considerably longer than non-selective dismantling, but our aim is to recycle materials for higher value purposes,” explains Mr Malavallon.

TARMAC is also an important source of information and feedback for Airbus concerning aircraft ageing and changes in dismantling techniques. This data is fed to engineers working at the beginning of the aircraft lifecycle, helping them to improve the design of both existing and future aircraft.

Malavallon sees the Tarbes site as the first in a network, all of which will apply the lessons learned from PAMELA. A wide-spread global infrastructure would make recycling more efficient and would, over time, ensure viable quantities of materials such as composites, which cannot currently be recycled.

“Composite materials such as carbon fibre cannot be recycled at present – the quantities being recovered are too low and the technical performance of the recovered materials needs to be improved. These materials represent a much greater proportion of aircraft currently in production, so our aim is to develop recycling processes for manufacturing waste, within a 3 to 5 year horizon, which can subsequently be applied to the aircraft when they reach their end-of-life 20 years from now.”

EU co-financing

The PAMELA project was co-financed by the LIFE programme, the EU’s funding instrument for the environment. The project had a total budget €3.2 million, including an EU contribution of €1.16 million, and ran for just over two and a half years, from March 2005 until the end of October 2007.

More details on LIFE at: