An alternative to the rusty boneyard: Is it possible to recycle the behemoths of transport?

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How do you recycle planes, trains and space shuttles? We live in a throwaway society: we want new cars, new computers, new clothes. Like us, airlines and shipping companies want huge new pieces of kit. Often their purchases are justified on environmental grounds – new ships and planes are more energy efficient.

Boeing boasts that its Dreamliner "uses 20 per cent less fuel than today's similarly sized airplanes". But once you buy a new plane, train or ship, you need to get rid of the old one. The murky world of scrap, salvage and recycling is where many monster-sized machines end up when their working days are over.

Sometimes it's an ignominious end – off to rot in the searing desert sun or to be cannibalised by ill-equipped workers on a Bangladeshi beach.

This hidden domain of waste and want is deliberately kept out of sight. It's troubling.

But some people are trying to change that – to renew and recycle these engineering giants in safer surroundings and to use our scarce resources more wisely.

AIRCRAFT

The infamous boneyards of Arizona and New Mexico are the final resting place for thousands of aircraft. The rusting remains of every kind of airliner sits in the baking desert sun, sometimes left for years in plane purgatory.

But nowadays the savvy Steptoes of the aviation industry are trying to claw back as much as possible from planes that have been taken out of service.

"The market for aircraft parts is approximately £1.3bn," the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association reckons.

"But it is AFRA's firm belief that even greater financial value can be extracted from end-of-life activity."

To that end, France has found a calling as the centre of a thriving new industry – plane recycling.

"We expect the number of aircraft reaching retirement to double in the next decade," states Martin Fraissignes, from Chateauroux Air Centre, which is located on a former US Air Force base near Poitiers. That could mean 9,000 withdrawn aircraft in the next 20 years, according to an Airbus estimate.

"Managing the retirement of these valuable assets will be increasingly important for both economic and environmental reasons," adds Fraissignes, who takes aircraft apart and sells up to 90 per cent of the bits back to manufacturers.

Proving that where there's muck there's brass, French waste giant Suez Environnement joined up with Airbus to fund another recycling facility. Tarmac Aerosave at Tarbes charges between £80,000 and £120,000 to strip down a plane.

SHIPS

A year ago the Costa Concordia, below, sunk off Tuscany. Now a mammoth effort is underway to right the stricken ship and tow her to Sicily where she'll be cut into pieces and sold for scrap. Experts estimate it could take two years to chop the cruise ship up in a dry dock.

The Costa Concordia still grabs the headlines, but 2012 was also a notable year for other ships being scrapped. In fact it will probably be a record year. For the nine-and-a-half months to mid-October the number of ships withdrawn from service and sold to shipbreakers was 938.

There is little doubt that the final-year figures will show an increase over the 971 ships sent for retirement in 2011. We are pensioning off more ships than ever as cruise passengers and cargo companies demand newer, bigger, faster vessels for leisure and containerised cargo.

Seventy per cent of ships to be "broken" are sent to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where they are eerily dumped on beaches and deconstructed by hand in squalid conditions.

"The beaching of end-of-life vessels in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poses great dangers to the marine environment, as pollutants cannot be fully contained," cautions Patrizia Heidegger from Brussels-based charity Shipbreaking Platform.

The market for scrap metal from ships is huge. There are yards in Europe and the US that can break ships more safely, but it's much cheaper to get the donkey work done in South Asia, where safety rules are more lax, as Heidegger confirms: "The conditions when cutting the ships on beaches are extremely dangerous: workers hardly wear protective equipment and are exposed to hazardous waste."

SPACE SHUTTLES

Nasa's iconic Space Shuttles could never conceivably be scrapped or recycled – they're too central to America's sense of itself and to the post-war myths and magic that surround the Space Race. Instead, at the end of the Shuttle programme in 2011, Nasa decided to spread the Shuttles across the country.

Discovery went to Washington's Smithsonian Museum, Endeavour was sent to the Californian Science Centre in Los Angeles, Enterprise went to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York and Atlantis went to the Kennedy Space Centre's museum in Florida in November last year.

TRAINS

Trainspotters have been responsible for saving countless engines and carriages. When British Rail sounded the death knell for steam in 1955, thousands of proud steam engines were put on diesel death row. At Barry Island, South Wales, Dai Woodham began to buy old engines from BR – but crucially he didn't dispose of them. Woodham's scrapyard become folkloric in the world of railway preservation – and eventually many of the late Woodham's retired relics were bought by heritage railways and restored by an army of devoted volunteers.

Trains can also be stripped down for parts and partially recycled – but New York ]decided to throw dozens of old subway trains into the Atlantic Ocean to create an artificial coral reef habitat for marine creatures.

Even today, vintage trains continue to be restored: the latest is the Brighton Belle – an art deco electric train which shuttled passengers in luxury between Brighton and London Victoria from 1933 to 1972. Now enthusiasts are painstakingly rebuilding the Brighton Belle at a cost of £3m – and will run it again next year.

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