How To Recycle An Airplane

A recycled jetliner produces tons of metal and millions of dollars in parts, but a mistake could cost hundreds of lives. Here's how the company that salvaged the plane from Lost does its destructive business.

A car's typically just parted out once and then scrapped at the end of its life, but a jumbo jet is full of thousands of valuable parts that will be salvaged or recycled numerous times. One passenger plane may transition into service transporting packages, or off to commercial service in Africa, and then the fuselage used for training purposes.

Approximately 450 large aircraft are completely scrapped and disassembled each year, according to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, with another 5,900 passenger jets to be recycled by 2028 according to Boeing. Given the high prices for parts, dangerous materials, and the risk involved in recycling airplane parts it's not a job for any dismantling yard.

"In short, it's not like the auto [recycling] business," says aviation archeologist and plane recycling expert Doug Scroggins, who was responsible for recycling the airliner that's the centerpiece for ABC's Lost and serves as managing director for ARC Aeropsace Industries. "If you sell an engine off an aircraft and it crashes, you're going to be spending a great deal of time in jail."

Click "next" to go through the process of recycling an aircraft, or go here to see this in one long post.

Sources: Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, Boeing, Honolulu Star Bulletin, BBC News

All photos Matt Cardy/Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

How To Recycle An Airplane

Transport The Aircraft To Its FInal Resting Place
There are large aircraft recyclers in many countries, typically located at commercial airports or former military bases. These facilities include a runway large enough to support a jetliner and plenty of space for storing planes. Not all vehicles are immediately scrapped, but just stored until the plane's owners decide what to do with them.

The yard pictured in this photogallery is Air Salvage International in Kemble, England.

How To Recycle An Airplane

Strip The Planes Of Hazardous Materials
A modern aircraft is full of toxic and even radioactive materials as well as hazardous fluids used to make the plane operate. De-icing fluid runoff has been known to turn creeks bright orange and spraying planes with pesticides was once a common practice. Whether on-site or elsewhere, anything posing a danger to workers is carefully removed according to a strict set of regulations.

How To Recycle An Airplane

Remove The Engine
The engine is the single most valuable part of an aircraft and can be resold whole or parted out. A used engine is worth millions sold directly and many are rented out hourly for prices around $20-25,000 per month

"One engine has probably been on 50 airplanes," says Scroggins. "While you and I are talking, engines are being moved between airplanes, and parts are being pulled out to make better engines and then going on a wing."

How To Recycle An Airplane

How To Recycle An Airplane

Remove The Avionics And Electronics
Many of the thousands of valuable parts on a plane are the electronic bits, whether it's something as complex as the flight control computers, as important as a blackbox recorder, or as simple as the fuse for a coffee maker.

How To Recycle An Airplane

Gut The Interior
The interiors make up around 30% of the weight of a jetliner, and while the materials themselves aren't recyclable the highly specialized parts are.

"When you're dealing with an automobile seat out of a car it may be worth $50 to $100," says Scroggins. "[With an aircraft] it can be worth as little as $450 or as much as $5,000."

How To Recycle An Airplane

Strip The Metals
A Boeing 747, once stripped, can produce 100 tons of valuable metals such as aluminum. According to AFRA, their members produce 30,000 tons of aluminum, 1,800 tons of special alloys, and 600 tons of parts every year.

How To Recycle An Airplane

Snag The Landing Gear
Surprisingly, after the engines the most valuable part of an aircraft is its landing gear. A used landing gear off of a Boeing 777 costs into the millions. But in order to get at the landing gear the plane has to be propped up on some sort of support so the gear can be stripped.

How To Recycle An Airplane

How To Recycle An Airplane

Send It To The Shredder
Once all the valuable parts of plane are gone and there's nothing left that anyone would want it's finally shredded.

How To Recycle An Airplane

But Wait, There's More
Not all planes go to the shredder. A few are saved to produce films. Stcoggings' planes have been used in films like War Of The Worlds and, most famously, the Delta Lockheed L-1011 in Lost. Other uses for a plane's shell includes training for flight attendants, pilots, and first-responders.

Photo Credit: Doug Scroggins