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Waypoint: Conquering the throwaway society

Just the other day, I had the misfortune to find out that our humidifier was not working.

January 9, 2012  By Rob Seaman

Just the other day, I had the misfortune to find out that our humidifier was not working. The repairman advised that it was going to cost a few dollars shy of the price of a whole unit to fix. So, what to do – repair or replace? The unit is only four years old, properly maintained and was the best on the market at the time. I was not amused.

An emissions argument aside, aviation is in a better environmental position than many industries. PHOTO: AFRA


But this, of course, is just the tip of a bigger issue. They don’t build things like they used to – we joke about it, but it’s true. Take the “white goods” you have at home – fridge, stove, washer and dryer, even your microwave. Retailers say the days of buying appliances for 15 or 20 years are long gone. The average warranty is one year and, according to experts, you can expect six to maybe eight years of use before you either fix them or throw them away – because, once again, the cost to repair versus replace makes it attractive to do so.

The fact is, we have a “throwaway” mentality in our society. Those who are environmentally responsible will tell us, we are our own worst enemies. Landfills are rapidly filling up with things that just don’t break down – and we continue to add to the pile.


So, what about the aviation industry? Is it environmentally negligent? After some review and discussion, my conclusion is no. An emissions argument aside, aviation is in a better environmental position than many industries – including the vaunted auto industry and white goods manufacturers.

Over the course of its existence, an aircraft can be improved, enhanced and developed. Improvements can be made to the avionics suite, the entertainment components, the galley, and even the engine and related systems. These enhancements increase an aircraft’s longevity, which makes for a viable argument for replacing over scrapping and starting again.

Commercial aircraft manufacturers are becoming increasingly responsible for the “cradle to grave”  approach to aircraft development. They are cognizant of how an aircraft can or will be taken apart and disposed of when it’s finished its job. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), some 12,000 commercial aircraft will be delivered by 2020. At the same time, the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA) notes that 12,000 aircraft could be scrapped in the next 20 years. By the year 2016, AFRA will have the ability to recycle 90 per cent of an aircraft. Today, 80 to 85 per cent of an aircraft is recyclable, up from 50 per cent just a few years ago. Even the airlines – Air France in particular – are increasingly taking ownership in the disposal of their retired aircraft.

Cabin components are the most difficult part of an aircraft to recycle – the interior fit and finish. Several aviation experts note that the latest generation of aircraft will not necessarily be easier to recycle. Newer aircraft are lighter and more fuel-efficient due in part to carbon fibre and composite materials. And while disposal of these products is far less energy intensive – hence less expensive to recycle – the facilities that can recycle the products are few and far between. It will be a number of years before a NextGen Boeing 787 Dreamliner hits the scrapyard and accordingly, one would expect that by that time, the processes and systems to recycle carbon fibre will be as common as they are for aluminum today.

Some small Canadian operators can assist in the aviation recycling process. Toronto-based Electronics Recycling Services (ERS) is one such firm. ERS has a line of machines that runs more than 3,200 linear feet and will recycle old avionics, cabin entertainment systems and components. They also provide other services such as plastics recovery (granulation of mix materials that are not recoverable via other methods for reuse as fillers for Plastic Lumber Manufacturing Line); an electrostatic separation to recover copper, lead, zinc and tin; plus shredding of all types of electronics, ferrous material separation and aluminum separation. ERS claims that more than 90 per cent of what comes in ends up reused in other manufacturing components. The aviation community certainly needs more companies like ERS.

Aircraft have a usable life of 25 to 30 years on average, while cars get replaced every five to 10 years.

There are far fewer aircraft in the world than cars, fridges, washing machines and such going to the scrapyards. And with 90 per cent of aircraft being recycled, aviation is not a bad member of society. It certainly doesn’t contribute to the “garbage” pile of humanity like other industries.

Rob Seaman is a Wings writer and columnist.


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