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  • Writer's pictureHeini Noronen-Juhola

Circular economy in aviation

Circular economy has entered the business world changing many traditional business models and ideas significantly. The idea is to broaden the view from not only producing the end products, but producing them with feedback loops and challenging the environmental effectiveness of the whole production system. This can be applied in many ways depending on the business and the industry.

Circular economy in aviation is not easy to apply. Aviation is a conservative industry and most of the processes involve regulation. This is not a very flexible starting point to define circularity. That´s why the circular thinking is still slightly unorganized in aviation. However, there are plenty of approaches and applications that can be understood to be circular.

Recycling is probably the most obvious part of the circular economy. Regarding the B2B solutions in aviation there is for example an option for an airline to recycle the aircraft parts after the lifespan of the aircraft. The challenge is that the lifespan is rather long and an aircraft can work many lives for various airlines and flight types. Also, the aircraft materials are developing fast and the new materials are replacing the old ones. Based on all this the aircraft materials can probably be recycled, but perhaps the new usage potential is in some other industries besides aviation.

The same challenge applies to the aircraft deicing liquids. The glycols can be collected from the apron area and chemically distilled further back to a usable glycol. The challenge with this process is that it requires quite a lot of energy and thus becomes rather expensive and not very sustainable. Also because of the regulation, the distillation process has to be very thorough if the glycol is intended to be used for the aircraft deicing again. These are the reasons why many airports have decided to take the collected glycol instead on recycling to waste refinery plants or a chemical plant that would use the recycled glycol in some other industry besides aviation.

In passenger side of the aviation the potential for recycling is much more clear and globally applied. The same solutions that exist in restaurants and shops everywhere can be seen for the passengers during the flights and in the terminal buildings. Recyclable straws, cups or paper bags are a normal sight. Waste is sorted and recycled and used bottles are collected. Waste food is rescued.

The passenger's aviation experience is also impacted by the digitalization and thus paperless journey. Services like check-in are becoming more and more paperless and services can be accessed through various mobile applications. On top of saving paper material, it also reduces costs for the airline and speeds up many processes in the passenger's travel chain.

The question about having to own your transportation device is not really relevant in aviation. Among the normal private car owners there is potential to share or rent a car instead of owning it, but in aviation you typically use services provided by an airline. There has been start-up companies testing various Flight-as-a-Service concepts, but so far the business models have not proved to be viable. Aviation is a very capital intensive service business which requires plenty of operative work and ability to fulfil the expensive regulative needs. For a normal traveller this kind of a setup would not be doable.

The big environmental sustainability question in aviation is the usage of the sustainable aviation fuel and the other sustainable energy sources. Currently about 95% of the CO2 emissions in aviation come from the aircraft engines during the flights. The aircraft combustion engines could use the biological sustainable aviation fuel, but since the price of it is 3-4 times more expensive compared to the fossil fuel, the airlines are reluctant to use it. Also the adequacy of the feedstock and other raw materials is questionable, so new fuel and energy solutions are needed. The electric aircraft engines are technically still not mature so getting a wind or solar based energy solution from that side will take some time. Also the hydrogen based solutions are yet to come.

The circular economy is applied in aviation wherever it fits and however it is feasible. Many times the recycled materials and products go to other industries. Many times the methods especially at the passenger service side are copied from other industries. Many times the concepts that are suitable to other transportation areas (like sharing cars) don't apply to aviation.

The circular economy will come to aviation mostly when one day sustainable aviation fuels are used more regularly and in bigger volumes. Also the day when the electric engines in aviation are a norm, will come. And there will be new hydrogen based sustainable aviation fuels. When the fuel and the energy challenges are solved, the systemic transition can happen. That's the time the aviation industry can really and honestly enter the circular economy.

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