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In an industry that parks old jets, Bombardier aims for fully recyclable aircraft

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Most retired aircraft are parked in the desert, but with thousands of them coming into retirement in the next two decades, Bombardier has started recycling its planes and researching more sustainable materials and designs.

Most retired aircraft are parked in the desert, but with thousands of them coming into retirement in the next two decades, Montreal-based Bombardier Aerospace has started recycling its planes and researching more sustainable materials and designs.

Although the industry has set ambitious environmental targets of reducing aircraft carbon dioxide emissions by half by 2050 (compared to 2005), it falls far behind other industries in recycling. Bombardier led the creation of the Green Aviation Research and Development Network (funded by the Canadian government), a research group aimed at better understanding the environmental impact of an aircraft’s entire lifecycle.

I recently spoke with Hélène Gagnon, vice president of public affairs, communications and corporate social responsibility, who said Bombardier’s ultimate goal is to create a fully recyclable aircraft.

You’ve said that 75 percent of airplane parts are recyclable, but very few are recycled. What is being recycled today?

Seventy-five percent are recyclable, but in reality only about 300 aircraft are recycled every year. Five thousand to 7,000 will be retired in next 20 years.

So what we’re doing at Bombardier--we’re the only airplane manufacturer accredited by AFRA [Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association]—the lead association for aircraft recycling. We’re actually dismantling some of our older aircraft, like the CRJ 100/200.

Magellan Aircraft Services in North Carolina is the supplier doing it. We’re not in the business of recycling; we’re in the business of building aircraft. So Magellan does the dismantling; we help them find the old CRJ 100/200 aircraft.

The 300 aircraft that are recycled every year—how many of those are Bombardier’s planes?

Just a few. But this is an industry number. That’s 300 worldwide.

Why aren’t there more?

The industry is just setting itself up to think about disposal. The useful life of aircraft is 20 to 25 years. When some older aircraft were retired from service, the environment was not as important as it is today. So thousands are parked in the desert But at the time, the manufacturers did not have the sensitivities to take care of product disposal. Today, manufacturers in all fields are thinking about the lifecycle of the product, but that was not the case 20 years ago. So it’s an evolution in the industry.

Is the cost to recycle prohibitive?

It’s definitely easier to send it to the desert, and there’s no regulation right now. It’s just voluntary. If there’s value in the metal, that can create an incentive as well. It’s a bit of a complicated process to dismantle an aircraft; there’s a lot of R&D going on to make the decision at the design stage--that’s a new mindset. We’re now using the design-for-the-environment methodology. We’re looking at the environmental impact at the design stage.

Your goal is to have a 100 percent recyclable aircraft?

Our goal is to make sure we look at the lifecycle of our product, and yes, going forward, if we can make the right design choices right now, to make sure when our aircraft come out of service, they are fully recyclable. Right now, with the metal ones, 75 percent is recyclable. We’re looking for solutions for the remaining 25 percent. For the composite, we have another project that is looking at how we can prepare now to recycle a composite aircraft.

How do the aircraft get to Magellan for dismantling? What's the process?

Our role could be to identify the aircraft coming out of service and tell customers there’s an option. We don’t own the aircraft anymore; someone else operated it for 25 years. But if an airline is looking to replace its suite, we would recommend [recycling].

One of the benefits of dealing with Magellan is that this supplier has the capability to carry out the dismantling process at more than one airport location within North America. This means that once the operator has finished with the aircraft, it doesn't need to be flown to a specific location, it can simply be taken to the local center that Magellan can operate out of and that’s near the airline’s operations.

What is the business model? Who pays for recycling an old aircraft?

With the Magellan partnership, Bombardier Aerospace owns the aircraft and hires Magellan, as a supplier to dismantle the aircraft on behalf of Bombardier. Magellan realizes the best value from that asset, and the financial return from the recycling process comes back to Bombardier Aerospace.

Magellan uses the Best Management Practice guides from AFRA. These guides are the most up-to-date source for recommending how dismantling of aircraft and airframes should be carried out. In operating in this way, Bombardier deals with an accredited dismantler who applies the best practices of the industry to realize maximum value for those assets.

What is the metal used for after it is dismantled from an aircraft?

Metal from old aircraft is considered as any other recyclable material. Magellan works in collaboration with a waste management and metal recycling specialist who processes the metal to enable it to be used again. The "used" reprocessed metals are typically mixed with virgin material by the metals manufacturers at a rate of around 30 percent and then used in a variety of products, including the automotive and drinks industries.

How much do the end-of-life impact and environmental concerns depend on developing new materials at the design stage?

Right now, most of the aircraft are in aluminum and a couple other alloys. All the new aircraft going forward will have a lot of composites—which is lighter and stronger than steel, corrosion resistant and has a longer life. It will be almost 40 percent composite for our CSeries, the new commercial aircraft, with 110-130 seats.

And the Learjet 85 on the business side, all the main airframe will be composite. They will enter into service in 2013. We have at least 25 years before we think of the recycling, but we need to prepare right now.

There is one company worldwide, in the U.K., that can recycle composites. We’ve set up a specific R&D project to improve the recyclability of composites.

What’s involved in getting a new material tested and approved for flight?

It’s a long process. But we’re not the first to use composite. The advantage is that it’s stronger than steel and aluminum, and it’s much lighter. You can actually mold the composite into one big piece. The whole fuselage--it’s one big piece coming out of an oven. When it’s metal, it’s thousands of rivets just to put the parts together.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure