The 1,001 lives of an airplane

Posted on 18 March 2014.

Gone are the days when airplanes were simply scrapped at the end of their service life. Nowadays, they are dismantled and recycled.

Did you know a recycled airplane can provide enough metal to make 5,176,470 soda cans? It's quite possible that your MacBook has already been around the world several times!

Between 6,000 and 8,500 airliners will reach the end of their service life in the next 20 years. European regulations require the aircraft industry to dismantle and recycle them. Aircraft are deemed to have reached the end of their service life once they are more than 30 years old or are more cost-effective to dismantle than to keep in operation due to the excessively high costs of kerosene or servicing.

There are nearly a dozen sites specializing in these operations around the world, mainly in the United States (here, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base) and Europe. At the Châteauroux facility in France, it takes three people six weeks to dismantle a jumbo jet. There are three stages in the process.

The first involves disassembly. Aircraft parts and components of value – all electronic, electrical and computer equipment used to pilot the plane – are recovered for resale and for use on new aircraft. This can total up to a thousand parts (engine, auxiliaries, landing gear, seats, etc.). Even on older aircraft, the majority of parts can be recycled due to the need for frequent replacements. The second stage is processing and decontamination: removing hazardous materials and liquids for separate treatment. The third stage involves cutting up and crushing the aircraft to recycle nearly 147 metric tons of raw materials: 85% aluminum, 10% steel, 3% titanium and 2% copper. These metals are then sent to specialist sorting facilities.