The smog economy: Bottled air takes off as a big business in China

Beijing (Mashable) — Moses Lam was an overworked mortgage broker when he started selling bags of air from Canada on eBay as a joke.

Now his company, Vitality Air, is scrambling to keep up with demand from China.

“Our Chinese website keeps crashing. We are getting orders from all over the country, not just from the wealthier cities. When the air is bad, we see spikes in sales,” said Harrison Wang, China representative for Vitality Air.

“The smog is definitely our best advertising,” Wang added.

Vitality Air is just one of a variety of companies that are profiting from the near-absurd business of selling canned, bottled or even bagged air. The notion — maybe best known for being a gag in the 1987 movie Spaceballs — is finding a market in China, a country with a crisis-level pollution problem and growing upper and middle classes willing to spend on the finer things in life.

Largely seen as a novelty gift at its launch last October, Vitality Air, has since sold 12,000 bottles in China to customers including athletes, business executives and families with small children. It’s also not an entirely new business — one Chinese businessman started selling canned air in 2012.

The air doesn’t come cheap. Vitality Air charges between $20 and $32 for a canister that lasts between 150 and 200 breaths.

Vitality Air and its competitors are filling a dystopian market opportunity created by China’s air pollution. Millions of deaths have already been attributed to air pollution in China and India. On Thursday, the World Health Organization released its newest study, finding that air pollution in China continues to be well in excess of safe levels — and the impact is felt disproportionately by lower classes.

“Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, in the recent study. “At the same time, awareness is rising and more cities are monitoring their air quality. When air quality improves, global respiratory and cardiovascular-related illnesses decrease.”

Most people see that as an emerging health crisis. For others, it’s a market opportunity.

“It’s a pollution disaster zone,” said Tang Xian, a customer from one of China’s most smog-choked provinces, Hebei. “I don’t need to go abroad to enjoy [fresh air] when I can buy a few bottles. I don’t know if there are any longterm benefits, but for the short-term it can slake my thirst.”

A Beijing-based businessman from Toronto, Canada, who received a can of air for Christmas as a joke from a friend from home said he is now “addicted.”

“I keep a bottle on my desk and take some deep breaths when no one is looking. It’s good stress relief,” said the 32-year-old, who didn’t want to be identified because he was “too embarrassed”.

The air in there

Vitality Air is far from the only company that is offering air as a luxury.

A British man in Hong Kong started Aethaer, which is selling glass jars of air from the UK at a steep £80 plus £12 flat shipping fee.

On its website, Aethaer boasts that its air is “filtered organically by nature as it flows between the leaves of woodland trees, absorbs pristine water as it passes over babbling brooks and forest streams, and is lovingly caressed as it rolls over and between mineral rich rock formations.”

Aethaer founder Leo De Watts, 27, spoke about the air the way some discuss fine wine.

“How long the jars lasts depend on the breathing technique,” De Watts said.

“It could be one big gulp for people who are heavier breathers, but for the kind of person who likes to savor the finer things in life, who likes fine dining, taking short quick breaths might be preferable for them.”

It can be hard to know just how seriously these people are taking this business. It is, after all, selling an invisible, ubiquitous gas. Aethaer’s own “Air Farming” video can seem almost too ridiculous to be true.

Here, we see an Aethaer employee catching air in a bottle.

//giphy.com/embed/3oEjI1Ankxtw07iCkM?html5=true

Launched on Jan. 1, Aethaer sold 150 jars in China around the time of Lunar New Year celebrations in February. The company has now sold a total of 278 jars, mostly in China with several orders coming from the U.S. and Europe as well.

Aethaer doesn’t seem to be trying to actually replace the air people breath, which is an interesting proposition for selling air in jars. Sure, it can be opened and inhaled, but De Watts talks about the product in loftier terms.

“Each jar is a unique piece of art. It is a status symbol for those who can afford imported air, and also helps to raise awareness about pollution problems,” he said.

Another startup, Paradise Air, sells bottled air from Tasmania for as much as $70 for one compressed can. Their website claims the product “effectively cleans and heals your body from the effects of air pollution.”

Mashable was not able to find any contact details for the company on its website or on social media platforms. According to their domain registration details, the company is registered in Toronto and their contact details are protected by a privacy service. The privacy service did not allow Mashable to leave a message for the company, nor did it respond to requests for comment.

To breathe or not to breathe

Empty cans filled with air have long been sold in novelty shops and used as marketing gimmicks, but significant amounts of people have only recently been buying expensive bottled air for personal use, environmentalists have noted.

“That it would occur to anyone to buy air in a bottle definitely speaks to how bad the situation is,” Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior global campaigner for Greenpeace, told Mashable. “It is a terrifying feeling when you know that with every breath you are inhaling toxic particles that can get everywhere into your body, so you can understand this visceral response of wanting to breathe safe air even for a moment.”

Some of the most hazardous air pollutants in China, and many other developing nations, are known as particulate matter. Such particles are small enough to penetrate human lungs and other vital organs. These pollutants can aggravate respiratory conditions and are linked to increased cancer rates, heart attacks and other fatal health outcomes.

Myllyvirta added that bottled air is unsustainable as pollution avoidance for even wealthy individuals.

“Unfortunately we need about 20 cubic meters or 20,000 one liter bottles of air everyday so this is hardly a longterm solution. It is possible to protect yourself to an extent by wearing a pollution mask and having an air purifier at your home, if you can afford it,” Myllyvirta said.

Canned air is an extreme example of the growing market in China for products that address air pollution. Other products are far more grounded. Personal air pollution monitors to check indoor and outdoor air quality are becoming common in more affluent households.

A team of a Canadian, a Swiss and one Chinese partner developed so-called “Laser Eggs”, smart air quality monitors that are sold for $79 in some high-end grocery stores and at all official Apple stores in China.

“People want to have an objective way of seeing air quality, and technology can help us control our environment… We love living in Beijing and wanted to find ways to stay here with less harm to our health,” said Jess Lam, co-founder of Origins, which makes Laser Egg monitors as well as air filtration machines.

China is not necessarily an outlier.

Vitality Air is preparing to expand to India, telling Mashable they expect stronger sales there since air pollution in parts of India is even more severe than in China. India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

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