[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Where old aeroplanes go to die
By Chris Ledgard
BBC News, Chateauroux, France

Plane on runway (BBC)
Manufacturers are thinking now about the whole lifecycle of their products

It was 38 years ago this weekend that the 747, the "jumbo jet", first rolled out of a factory in Everett, Washington State.

It was famous for one thing - being big - and phrases like "the size of a jumbo" soon became commonplace. And it was big for a reason: Boeing, like everyone else, foresaw a surge in air travel in the 70s, and to meet a huge demand it helps to have a huge plane.

For many people, the jumbo ruled the skies, but time is now up for the early 747s.

The life span of most commercial aeroplanes is said to be around 30 years; and so, just as there was a 1970s explosion in aircraft production, now there's a big jump in the number of planes beyond use.

What's to be done with them? Aircraft contain toxic materials, so dumping them at a far-off airfield or throwing them in the sea is clearly unacceptable. But that's just what has been happening, according to Bill Glover, Boeing's director of environmental performance for commercial aeroplanes.

We're going to do it before they tell us to do it
Jim Toomey, Evergreen Air Centre
"There were some specific instances - I won't say they were widespread by any means - of bits of planes found in waterways. That obviously raised a flag for everyone concerned."

Concerned by this and aware that getting rid of aeroplanes was only going to become more of an issue, Boeing set up the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (Afra). It's a union of recycling companies with two airports - Chateauroux in central France and Evergreen Air Centre in Arizona.

Separated scrap

A visit to Chateauroux is slightly unnerving. The airport is run by Martin Fraissignes (also the executive director of Afra), who estimates as many as 8,000 aircraft may be retired in the next decade.

As we examine a plane which has been sliced in half, he points out the thinness and apparent fragility of the shell and chuckles: "You're flying 900km per hour at 30,000ft... in this!"

Planes ready to be recycled (BBC)
Old planes are dismantled on Chateauroux's concrete surface
Only half-joking, he says it's good this is a freight airport which doesn't take passengers - the sight of these smashed up planes would do nothing for their nerves.

Heaps of metal and tangled wire litter Chateauroux's concrete surface on which all the dismantling and recycling takes place.

Parts that still work are taken away for re-sale. Metals are separated for re-use. But in years to come, plane recycling will become less of an exercise in processing scrap metal.

Increasingly, aircraft are being made of carbon fibre - the substance makes up 50% of Boeing's 787. And this, says the company's Bill Glover, presents a new recycling challenge.

"We realised that we needed to take some steps to address the ability to recycle that material at end of life. So we set out to find that technology." And how happy are Boeing with what they've found? "We're just tickled pink," says Glover.

Moulding change

At the Milled Carbon factory in West Bromwich you can see what's tickling him.

Here, carbon fibre is recycled in a process taking just 20 minutes. The quality of the end product is so good, say Boeing, they're confident it can go back into planes.

Milled Carbon is run by John Davidson. He's a founder member and director of Afra and gives an insight into why it was set up.

Scrap for recycling (BBC)
Thousands of aircraft will have to go this way
On top of the concern about dumped planes and a desire to develop best practice, there was a political motive, he says.

Aircraft aren't covered by the End of Life Vehicles Regulations that pass the cost of dismantling cars onto manufacturers; but that could change and Afra, says Mr Davidson, is keen to pre-empt new laws:

"There are no set rules for doing this. So if we sit down and talk about what are the best ways - the most environmental and economical ways of doing this - and then present that as a set of rules for the legislators to work with, so much the better."

'Our business'

Another founding member of Afra agrees. Jim Toomey runs the Evergreen Air Centre in Arizona, the US counterpart of Chateauroux.

"Why is Afra going to be great? Number one, it's going to get the best practices established. Number two, it's going to keep us at the cutting edge of recycling technology. And number three, it's going to do it without government regulation and interference.

"We're going to do it before they tell us to do it, and we're going to come up with practices we can live with and which are better than maybe they can enforce because this is our business."

Boeing 777-200LR Worldliner (AP)
The latest planes use carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic composites
Observers of the aviation world won't be surprised to hear that while Boeing pursue the Afra project, Airbus have a similar scheme called Pamela - Process for Advanced Management of End of Life Aircraft.

The programme is also based in France, and Airbus says it differs from Afra in being a research tool rather than an industrialised process. Three-point-two million euros are being invested in this research. Some of the money has come from the European Union.

So both major manufacturers are clearly concerned about this issue. Each is drawing up a code of good practice and maybe environmental legislators will reward their efforts. And, after all those years of service, surely those jumbos deserve a decent end.

How old aeroplanes are recycled

Plastic planes 'set to rule sky'
16 Jul 06 |  England

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific