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Circular economy in aviation

Circular thinking is still slightly unorganised in aviation. However, there are plenty of approaches and applications that can be understood as circular.


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 22.05.2024

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 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.

Aviation is a conservative industry and most of the processes involve regulation. This is not a very flexible starting point to define circularity. However, there are plenty of approaches and applications that can be understood as circular.

Circular economy in aviation is not easy to apply

Recycling is probably the most obvious part of circular economy. Regarding the B2B solutions in aviation there is for example an option for an airline to recycle the aircraft parts after its lifespan. The challenge is the long lifespan and the fact that an aircraft can work many lives for various airlines and flight types. Also, aircraft materials are developing fast and new materials are replacing the old ones. Aircraft materials can probably be recycled, but perhaps the new usage potential is in other industries than 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. This process requires quite a lot of energy and thus becomes rather expensive and not very sustainable. Due to regulations, the distillation process is very thorough. Many airports have decided to take the collected glycol instead to waste refinery or chemical plants that use the recycled glycol in some other industry.

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

The passenger’s experience is also impacted by digitalisation and thus a paperless journey. Services like check-in can be accessed through mobile applications. On top of saving material and costs for the airline this speeds up many processes in the passenger’s travel chain.

Circular economy is applied in aviation wherever it fits and however it is feasible

The big environmental sustainability question in aviation is the usage of sustainable aviation fuel and other sustainable energy sources. Currently about 95 % of the CO2 emissions in aviation comes from aircraft engines during flights. The aircraft combustion engines could use biological sustainable aviation fuel, but since the price of it is 3-4 times more compared to fossil fuel, airlines are reluctant to use it. New fuel and energy solutions are needed.

Circular economy will materialise in aviation the day sustainable aviation fuels are used regularly and in bigger volumes. The day will come when electric engines in aviation are a norm and there will be new hydrogen based sustainable aviation fuels. When the fuel and the energy challenges are solved in aviation, the systemic transition can happen. That is when the aviation industry can really and honestly enter the circular economy.

Heini Noronen-Juhola teaches international aviation business as a senior lecturer at both Haaga-Helia and ChongQing technical university.

Picture: Shutterstock