Monetised Fear: Canned ‘Clean’ Air

I live in a valley blessed with such clear air and low levels of light pollution that I can gaze in wonder at the Milkyway on cloudless nights. But I understand air pollution as a scientist and intuitively: I have been in some of the places named in news stories of extreme air pollution that causes countless premature deaths: Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, London, Berlin.

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Air pollution in the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. Spot the dredging ship in the centre of the image, less than 100 m away. Photo (c) C Braungardt 2007.

I have travelled up the Pearl River with less than 100 m visibility from a mixture of condensation and smog. I have tasted the acidic mix of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide hitting the back of my throat, developed that rasping cough and unexplainable ‘clamping’ sensation on the lungs that seems an inevitable consequence of staying in Hong Kong’s winter for too long.

As more evidence of the adverse health effects of air pollution emerges, the cry of affected populations for cleaner air is understandable, the fear for their children’s health is understandable.

But canned ‘clean’ air? To me, this is a cynical move to exploit people’s fears and does nothing for the planet, except produce more pollution. Let me explain: Enterprises that can air and sell it around the world are mushrooming. There is ‘Vitality Air‘, claiming ‘Vitality Air is the leader in providing affordable and conveniet natural fresh, clean air. We build our products so that the average person could breathe happily in the comfort of their lifestyle‘. A three-pack of 7.7 litres air claimed to be collected in the Canadian mountains will set you back by $100 in the sales. Truly affordable for some! And already 200000 bottles have been sold in key markets, such as China, India, Russia, Kuwait. Then there is ‘Swissbreeze‘ whose slogan ‘Swiss bottled air – The experience. Recreational. Refreshing. Revolutionary‘ says more about the target market than the product. Rush! The current sale offers a three pack of 8 litres Swiss Bottled Air for a mere $59.90. And to top it all (but by no means the last on a long list of companies) there is ‘Clean and Green‘: ‘Breath the difference. Remember that feeling of taking in a deep breath of Pure Clean Air, you felt invigorated and alive. That’s what we’ve captured for you to enjoy anywhere at anytime.‘ What really really really bugs me with this one is the name: Clean and Green. At least the other companies don’t claim to be green! They are unashamedly out to make money, in the same way as companies who sell pills and tinctures, superfoods and self-help books that do no more than rely on the average person’s angst around health, fitness and longevity.

Check on green – I’m not in the mood for a full life-cycle assessment, but here are some thoughts:

  • Packaging: aluminium or other metal can, plastic top and mask for breathing in the product. Multi-packs likely wrapped in plastic and/or cardboard. Pallets (wood) with securing tapes (plastic/metal).
  • Filling station: air compressor made from multiple parts, mainly metal and some rubber or plastic tubing and fittings. Travel to and from filling station to warehouse. Fuel consumption by compressor and transport. Noise.
  • Storage: warehouse (building, construction material), amenities (heating, water, electricity, computing).
  • Transport: vehicles, air or shipping. Fuel. Transfer from bulk transport to smaller units and outlets. Distribution to consumers.
  • Waste: all of the packaging above, carbon dioxide (that well-known greenhouse gas, great for climate change!), nitrogen and nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter arising from fuel combustion during transport. Transport of the waste to landfill or recycling.

How big is the hole in the ground to extract the metal required for manufacturing one of those little compressed air cans? How much waste rock is generated during the mining and has to be deposited somewhere? How much energy is needed to make the raw aluminium and manufacture the can? The plastic? How much fuel is burned? And how much environmental damage is done in extracting the raw oil, refining it, transporting it…Overall, how much soil, air and water pollution is generated by the whole process from manufacturing to waste management?

My opinion: no, one or even 50 breaths of ‘clean’ air out of a can a day will ameliorate those adverse health effects people experience in too many highly polluted cities. It is a frivolous waste of our planet’s resources canning air. I will have to add it to my list of pet-hates, along with all that plastic waste generated in the name of ‘celebrating’ Christmas, Halloween, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, …. but that’s another story.

The story of canned fresh air was covered in The Guardian online and The Oberver Magazine today. But it was a more of a life style article with an air pollution touch, completely missing the damaging environmental dimension of the product itself. In the name of sustainability, it is time for more joined-up thinking in the world and the mainstream media has a key role to play.

References

Moshakis (2017) Fresh Air for Sale. The Guardian. Air pollution, The Observer. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/21/fresh-air-for-sale [accessed 21/01/2018]

UNICEF (2016) Air pollution is endangering children’s health in Mongolia. UNICEF online: https://www.unicef.org/health/mongolia_90290.html [accessed 21/01/2018]

WHO (2016) Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health. Fact sheet.  World Health Organisation online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/ [accessed 21/01/2018].

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