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Are reusable, recyclable and recoverable aeroplanes in our future?

An EU Green Week partner event highlights circular economy-based solutions for a more sustainable aviation industry.

Transport and Mobility
Climate Change and Environment

The EU-funded SUSTAINair project recently hosted an EU Green Week 2021 partner event to discuss sustainable solutions that can help reduce the aviation industry’s environmental impact. Titled ‘Circular Aviation for Green Growth’, the virtual event sought to raise stakeholder awareness of the benefits of applying circular economy principles to aviation. The first part of the event was a panel discussion that centred around circular aviation trends. SUSTAINair project coordinator Jürgen Roither from the Austrian Institute of Technology kicked off the event and moderated the discussion. Five panellists representing stakeholders across the aviation supply chain participated in the discussion. Circular aviation expert Ligeia Paletti of SUSTAINair project partner Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre introduced the Association of European Research Establishments in Aeronautics and its flagship programme Future Sky. Paletti explained that the goal of the Future Sky initiative is to enable the first fully circular flight by 2050 through the design and manufacture of aircraft that are reusable, recyclable and recoverable. The second panellist, Irene Fernandez Villegas of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) outlined the trends observed in aviation by this professional network. These included a growing interest in circularity at different levels in the SAMPE community and a strong interest in thermoplastic composites and short-fibre processes. Other trends included an interest in life-cycle assessment (LCA) as a design tool, bio-fibres and reversible cross-linking.

Need for regulated aircraft decommissioning

Fernandez Villegas suggested that such solutions would be in high demand when the A350 and Boeing 757 reached their end-of-life stage. Additionally, they would also benefit the wind turbines industry, 10 % of whose non-recyclable materials are composite components. The panellist also mentioned the current absence of and need for European regulations on aircraft decommissioning. Next to speak was Isabell Gradert, Fast Track Leader for Materials at Airbus. “Airbus has identified materials as a fast-track technology,” explained Gradert, referring to it as a means to overcome future challenges both within Airbus and in the wider industry. She then spoke of the company’s aim to develop the first zero-emission aircraft by 2035 “to make sure that the next generation can enjoy flying as much as we do today.” Three circular economy aspects were presented for materials: inflow (with the aim to use materials with increased recycled or bio-based content), reuse (e.g. using composite manufacturing waste as interior material for cabin linings), and outflow (e.g. making furniture with material parts and bicycles with carbon composite waste). Gradert also spoke of the need for data transparency and traceability, a view shared by fourth panellist Sonell Shroff of the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking. Shroff described the Clean Sky initiative to create a common aviation-specific database that will enable complex LCAs. Lastly, business development head Vytautas Reisas of Lithuanian company Jet Maintenance Solutions explained the challenges faced by the maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) industry. Reisas also called for better cooperation between researchers and MRO specialists to provide the know-how needed to utilise new technology and integrate prognostic systems. The panel discussion was followed by a showcase session on key enabling technologies that are currently being researched by EU-funded projects such as SUSTAINair (SUSTAINability increase of lightweight, multifunctional and intelligent airframe and engine parts). For more information, please see: SUSTAINair project website


SUSTAINair, aviation, aircraft, circular economy, circular aviation, EU Green Week