Sustainability in Aviation: The Crucial Role of a Circular Economy

Sustainability in Aviation: The Crucial Role of a Circular Economy

The aviation industry is currently under tremendous pressure to improve sustainability. Commercial airlines are major contributors to climate change and currently account for approximately 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. This is primarily because of the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels, metals, and other finite resources involved in aircraft construction and maintenance.

But the world is taking notice. Governments and regulatory bodies around the world are rapidly introducing new policies to promote sustainable practices and penalize environmentally hazardous or deceitful behaviors. Airlines are also incentivized by growing consumer preferences for environmentally-friendly transportation. That’s why in October of 2022, the more than 190 nations that make up the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) collectively vowed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As such, analysts at IDC predict that 80 percent of global manufacturers will incorporate environmental sustainability into their product life-cycle management by 2024.

An increasingly popular strategy for improving sustainability is the adoption of a circular economy model, in which resources are continuously recycled and re-used for manufacturing. Circularity stands to help airlines minimize waste and reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously increasing operational efficiency, giving airlines a valuable competitive edge.

Here are a few ways circular economy practices can be implemented into the aviation industry.

Eco-design and Recycling in Manufacturing

By prioritizing the use of highly recyclable materials and incorporating designs that enable disassembly and end-of-life recyclability, manufacturers can easily recover valuable materials and components that can then be reintroduced into the production cycle. Implementing eco-design principles and sustainable materials ultimately reduces waste and decreases the aviation industry’s impact on the environment.

To extend the life cycle of aircraft and aircraft components, airlines can also introduce effective systems for regular inspection, maintenance, repair, and refurbishment. Conducting accurate and comprehensive assessments allows aircraft and aircraft components to be recycled before their condition deteriorates to the point where they cannot be recycled. However, to do this, airlines need to amp up their quality control to ensure that recycled materials or refurbished parts meet strict industry standards.

In addition, airlines can adopt sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) derived from renewable and waste-based resources, which can help reduce the aviation industry’s dependency on fossil fuels. Compared to conventional fuels, SAFs emit up to 80 percent less CO2 emissions. At the moment, SAFs cost more than traditional fuels, but technological progress, increased production capacity, and supportive regulatory policies will gradually reduce the cost of SAFs considerably, making them more competitive with traditional jet fuels in the near future.

The Role of Technology

With so many stakeholders involved in airline manufacturing, circularity will only be attainable with the adoption of a robust and secure data-sharing system that promotes transparency. Instilling this interconnected and collaborative culture among stakeholders is much easier thanks to digital traceability.

Digital product passports and material passports or, as they are sometimes called, “digital twins”, can facilitate the storage and management of data related to the materials, composition, components, manufacturing location, and maintenance history of aircraft. Armed with this hard data, airlines can easily prove that they are indeed as sustainable as they say they are. Digital traceability also makes it easier to accurately calculate Scope 1, 2, and 3 carbon emissions and gauge an airline’s total environmental footprint.

In addition, installing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on aircraft parts and components can enable real-time tracking and monitoring of the location, condition, and usage of these items. This technology can even help predict the best times for repair, maintenance, recycling, or end-of-life disposal.

Finally, aircraft manufacturers can utilize blockchain technology to record all this data in an immutable database. This gives manufacturers, suppliers, maintenance and repair facilities, recycling centers, and other stakeholders tamper-proof records of every transaction across the entire life cycle of aircraft and aircraft components.

Blockchain provides a trustworthy way to track and share all essential information required to effectively implement and monitor circular economy practices. For example, cryptographic methods such as zero-knowledge proofs enable stakeholders to share relevant information without compromising the confidentiality of sensitive data.

Final Thoughts

By embracing circular economy practices, the aviation industry can not only meet its sustainability goals, but also build resilience against future environmental challenges. Yes, there may be higher upfront costs for research and development as well as the production of new materials, technologies, and systems. But the increasing scarcity of natural resources, consumer expectations and regulatory pressures for sustainable practices suggest that this transition will be unavoidable. The aviation industry must act swiftly to mitigate the far-reaching impacts of climate change and pave the way for more circular economic practices.

Mesbah Sabur is the founder of circular economy company Circularise, a digital technology start-up that enables supply chain actors to share sensitive data without compromising privacy and confidentiality while helping the challenges faced by society in the areas of circular economy, environmental pollution, and carbon emissions.