I once read an interesting article in a British Airways in-flight magazine about how planes are recycled. When I heard about the scrapping of the entire British Airways 747 fleet recently, I was reminded of that article.
I have always loved the Boeing 747. It was the first really big plane I flew in. It was also the plane I flew in the first time I flew long haul (to Brazil), and my heart always beat a little faster every time I saw the distinctive bump and the four engines. I guess the coronavirus sped up the end of the 747 era, but it was inevitable because there has been a move away from four-engine wide-body aircraft in recent years.
Planes are so expensive to build and maintain that parts are generally stripped and sold from end-of-life aircraft. It is both cost-effective and eco-friendly. It is estimated that in a couple of decades, 12,000 airplanes worth £1.3 trillion will be at the end of their service life. I have heard that the average plane flies for 25 – 30 years before end of service, though I imagine it is less now, given that planes are becoming more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient rather fast, and older ones can be more effectively recycled than before.
Each planes has a dismantling manual so it can be taken apart piece by piece. Aviation abbatoirs (yes that is what the recycling companies are called) start with removing components such as the engines (which sell for up to £16,000 each), seats (which can sell for up to £15,000 believe it or not, if it is a captain’s seat), as well as flight management boxes (which sell for almost £160,000). Other parts such as the cockpit, doors, rows of seats and parts of the cabin shell are sliced out and used in training new airline employees. These parts can also be used for research and development by aircraft manufacturers seeking to improve their planes. Some components can be removed and used in new planes – galleys, windshields, landing gear (which sells for millions), engines, and overhead bins for example. All parts do need to be checked, serviced and repaired if necessary before introducing them to the supply chain. Movie studios use certain part of recycled planes for interior filming and also to be blown up in explosions or crashes. Police and rescue services can also use parts of the plane for crisis prevention training. Some planes are in museums, or – like the Concorde – on display. Certain aircraft parts can be repurposed in other areas entirely. Various metals and plastics are sorted and fed into the conventional recycling chain. The hull is crushed for scrap metal. I imagine much of the rest of the plane can be sorted and melted down and reused as raw material. Related items such as blankets, pens, old instrument panels, anything with livery on it, are often sold on to collectors. You can find loads of weird plane items on eBay. Up to 90% of old planes can be recycled, but some things like the carpets, are either sent to landfill or baled for reuse as yarn or carpet tiles. Ultimately, however, a plane is designed to be safe and this does not always gel with the goal of recyclability.
Stockholm Arlanda airport has JumboStay, a hostel made from an old 747.
When cars are built, the materials used are clearly labelled and can be recycled. But when it comes to planes, there is no such regulatory systems in place and different planes are made from different materials, which makes a consistent process very hard to initiate. Even so, it is incredible that so much of these flying behemoths can be sold, reused, and recycled.