Reducing emissions and curbing broader climate impact are currently hot topics in aviation, and rightly so. However, only considering flight emissions is like wanting to bake a cake, but only using one ingredient. Although essential, flight emissions do not cover the full life cycle of an aircraft. They are a limited amount of the overall energy consumption and emissions related to aviation.

Slowly the aviation industry is starting to address sustainability aspects related to production and manufacturing. Yet, most aspects related to end-of-life solutions, maintenance, operations and production of aircraft and airports are still being neglected. Royal NLR is paving the way to circular aviation by developing solutions in this field.

In 2019, we took the lead in developing a circularity white paper for aviation within EREA, the European aerospace research centres group. This paper not only describes the technical challenges of aircraft life cycle that need to be addressed, but also touches upon business models, societal aspects and policy and regulation. The EREA Circular Aviation White Paper will be available on the NLR website shortly. Whilst working on this project, it became clear to Ligeia Paletti, NLR’s circular aviation expert, how underexposed circularity is within aviation and how many important problems there are still to be solved. Together with NLR’s circular aviation team we are currently developing solutions for these problems by:

  1. Designing, developing and testing technical concepts for circular economy within aviation;
  2. Developing tools that enable implementation of circular measures within aviation;
  3. Creating awareness on the topic of circularity within the aviation sector and society, through our own channels and together with others.

Royal NLR is paving the way to circular aviation

The team is currently focusing on aircraft and airports. For the former, a main topic for research is sustainable materials, in particular solutions for end of life of structures and recycling opportunities. We are also working together with companies such as Noorderwind and Aerocircular who have the expertise to contribute to the future circular aircraft. For airports, we are developing an NLR framework to enable airports to identify the benefits of circularity and to apply measures to achieve it. We will be linking this to operations of airports in the future, incorporating innovations in flight technology. In partnership with NACO, we are exploring the wider potential for circular economy practices at various airports. A key topic we will also explore, is examining the life cycle of hybrid-electric aircraft, to see whether the emission reductions these aircraft achieve in flight are not undone by the energy required for the production of their batteries.

One thing is for sure: the team has ambitious plans for 2020 and beyond. In the Netherlands, today is the final day of the week of Circular Economy, but we are confident that for aviation this could be the start of a decade of Circular Economy! Who’s in?

Interested in joining forces on circular aviation? See our contact details below.

About the authors

Charlotte Meerstadt works as an R&D Engineer in sustainable aviation at NLR’s Environment and Policy Support Department. Charlotte has a broad academic background in art and engineering, which she aspires to use to find creative solutions to important problems. She is currently active in sustainable aviation fuels, circular economy, operational aspects of electric flight, electrification of ground operations, air quality and emissions reduction for airports. Questions? If you have any questions about this blog post, please feel free to contact Charlotte by email at or +31 885 11 37 55

Ligeia Paletti works at NLR’s Aerospace Vehicles Division. She is a passionate aeronautical engineer with a strong background in structural analysis and structural integrity. Ligeia is deeply committed to making aviation more sustainable, with the dream of making the first circular aircraft fly.  Setting up NLR’s Circular Economy Team is a great start to achieve that! Questions? If you have any questions about this blog post, please feel free to contact Ligeia by email at or +31 885 11 43 61