Sixty years ago, no one would imagine that water, a free and natural resource, would be sold in plastic bottles. Today, even air, an imperative to life, is being commercialized by entrepreneurs across the globe. Not the pressurized oxygen tanks that save lives every day in hospitals, but a disposable bottle filled with air.
The idea of selling air started out as a joke, when two Canadians, Troy Paquette and Moses Lam, posted a ziploc bag of air on eBay. Someone, probably amused by the offer, bought the product for 99 cents. Then, they managed to sell another one for $168. From there, Troy and Moses took the joke seriously and founded Vitality Air in 2014.
Advertised as “vital to one’s well being”, the so-called pure air is captured in the Rocky Mountains, a remote place in Canada, and transported to Vitality’s facility. At the end of the production line, is an aluminum bottle containing eight liters of air. Despite its expensive cost of $32, the canned air doesn’t lack demand. Strange as it may seem, people are willing to pay for what they’ve had free since their birth. In the wake of this uncanny success, other startup companies around the world have joined this promising market including Green&Clean (Australia), Aethaer and Swissbreeze (Europe).
The main selling point of this new product is to bring clean air to people experiencing extreme air pollution. As stated on Vitality’s website, Moses “felt the need to provide fresh clean air to everyone who couldn’t access it”; Green&Clean, Aethaer or Swissbreeze, in similar ways, portray their products as a solution to poor air quality. Luckily for them, demands are increasing in certain Indian and Chinese cities where wearing a dust mask is the norm. Claiming to fight air pollution, this industry raises a couple of questions.
Let’s start with the price tag. The cheapest bottled air available now is Vitality’s $29 can (on sale) which can last up to 160 one-second inhalations—an insignificant number compared to the average 23,000 breaths of an adult in a day. Thus, one would need nearly $4,200 for one day of fresh air (and that’s the cheapest option!). For fancier consumers, Aethaer offers $980 jars, and Vitality Air has a selection of luxurious air cans with diamond finishes. If a bottle of air can easily outcompete the U.S. average weekly salary, the supposed concern about people’s health becomes pointless. No wonder why Aethaer’s founder, Leo De Watts, “spoke about the air the way some discuss fine wine.”
Even if their products were more affordable, these companies would still be questionable. On one hand, their success depends on the level of air pollution. Harrison Wang, China representative for Vitality Air affirmed that “when the air is bad, [they] see spikes in sales” and admitted that “the smog is definitely [their] best advertising” (TheGuardian). On the other, they are polluting the air in order to provide clean air—a logic that I fail to follow. Like it or not, the production aluminum cans has huge environmental impacts, not offset by their disposable nature. Rather than being concerned about human health, this industry is taking advantage of the terrible air pollution to feed pockets.
To treat the case impartially, I have to mention that some consumers do enjoy bottled air, even though they doubt its long-term benefits. “Tang Xian, a customer from one of China’s most smog-choked provinces, Hebei”, was grateful that he didn’t “need to go abroad to enjoy [fresh air] when [he] can buy a few bottles”. Another Beijing-based businessman said that he became “addicted” to canned air which, for him, is a good stress relief (Mashable). Yet, these isolated satisfactions don’t justify the existence of the bottled air industry.
In my opinion, a can of air would only be ethical if designed for survival kits. In emergency situations lacking oxygen, it could keep you alive for a few minutes. But again, you would have to replace it frequently because “the guarantee shelf life is sometimes just one year.”
Without convincing argument, Vitality Air is proud that “air is going the same direction” as water, and (I guess) envisions a world where bottled air is an everyday thing, like in The Lorax, an animation movie. With the power of advertisement, any piece of nature (water, air, rock) can be turned into a profitable (and environmentally destructive) industry. As the saying goes: the only limit is your imagination.
Written by Kelly Jean, Class of 2021