AirAsia is upcycling old life jackets into lifestyle products

AirAsia is upcycling old life jackets into lifestyle products
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

AirAsia discards up to 5,000 uniforms, 100 safety vests and 200 seat belts every year. All that amounts to about 3.8 metric ton (3,800kg) fabric destined for the landfills.

Moving forward, things will take a greener turn.

AirAsia Foundation, the carrier's philantrophic arm, has launched an upcycling initiative that gives used life jackets and old uniforms a new lease of life. The result is the Soggy No-More collection, a collaboration with social enterprise Nazanin.

The collection went on sale in July this year, and its first iteration of products features various lifestyle accessories: A sling bag, pouch, coin purse and cutlery case.

The aim, according to AirAsia Foundation executive director Yap Mun Ching, is to manage waste in a more effective and efficient manner within the company.

"The project is part of a bigger initiative by AirAsia to recycle all waste materials we generate on the aircraft. As much as possible, a lot of the waste is managed internally," she says.

For airlines, especially one which operate a fleet of over 200 aircraft like AirAsia, waste generated can be colossal. Then there is the non-biodegradable waste. Previously, all old uniforms and used life jackets in AirAsia were just kept within a gigantic warehouse in Klang, Selangor.

"There are thousands of items in there. The airline doesn't throw anything away, so they just sit there. But we are running out of space at the warehouse," Yap says, adding that there had only ever been one scrap programme in the past.

That's where Soggy No-More comes in. As a start, the upcycling initiative helps manage waste from expired life jackets. The exterior of life jackets are typically made of nylon or vinyl with material that keeps the life jacket afloat sewn inside. But what happens in the event that they end up in the landfills?

"Well, the safety vests for one, are not biodegradable. We can't use any other materials because these are industry standard regulations. The jackets will just sit in the landfill for the next 200 years, at least," Yap replies grimly.

PLEASE DON'T FIDDLE WITH LIFE JACKETS

The lifespan of most internal aircraft safety equipment is typically 10 years, after which they are either reused, recycled or returned to the manufacturer.

"Some of the things are still in very good condition, but for various reasons, they cannot be used anymore. It could be because the lifespan has expired or sometimes passengers open up the packaging of the life jacket," Yap explains.

For safety reasons, life jackets that have been deployed will be replaced. In a way, the Soggy No-More collection will serve as an education of sorts.

"We want people to know that it's a very costly process to replace life jackets. The moment they are deployed, they cannot be used anymore. So, please don't go and fiddle with these things (unnecessarily)," Yap says.

Some of those deployed vests are sent back to manufacturers where they are subjected to an entire test process to determine whether fitness standards are met.

"Where possible, we try to maximise usage. But the reality is it costs much less to buy new life jackets than to send them back for retesting," she explains.

THE RIGHT MOMENT FOR UPCYCLING

In 2016, the AirAsia Foundation awarded a grant to APE Malaysia to produce TuffTug, a range of pet toys made from upcycled fire hoses and seat belts. Yap says the foundation had always wanted to embark on a full-scale upcycling project.

But the right opportunity only came around when design student Fong Shin Yi contacted the foundation for her final year project on expired life jackets. That university project soon turned into an accessories collection when the AirAsia Foundation bought Fong's ideas and repurposed its used life jackets.

Future products in development include rainproof hats, shoe covers and even footballs.

After life jackets, the collection is looking at tackling old uniforms, with leather seats in the distant pipeline. Airline uniforms are discarded whenever there's a change in design or staff, they are worn out or when a staff has outgrown them.

AirAsia recently ran an internal competition to generate ideas for upcycling uniforms. The shortlisted ideas are currently being prototyped. Some items include passport covers, bags, baby bibs and scrunchies made out of pilot's neckties.

"The collection will continue to grow and we're sampling more ideas in the future," Yap says. It helps that consumers are more conscious of environmentally sustainable products these days.

"There is a big movement against plastics now. What we are offering is an idea that people, companies and other airlines can take on and embark on their own upcycling initiatives," she says.

The Soggy No-More collection is only available at occasional pop-up stores. A list of upcoming events could be accessed on AirAsia Foundation's Facebook page. There are plans to sell the items onboard AirAsia's aircraft by next year.

If anything, upcycling initiatives by airlines are not exactly a novel notion. International carriers such as KLM, Finnair, Delta and Air France have done it in the past. The benefits are indisputable: Waste is reduced and airlines add an eco-conscious touch to their brands.

With Soggy No-More, the idea is to bring it to the next level by working with social enterprise. Here's where Nazanin, a social enterprise of Afghan refugees in Kuala Lumpur, comes into the picture.

The AirAsia Foundation enlists the help of Qasem, a refugee registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The man, along with two helpers, produce the accessories from his two-bedroom flat in Ampang.

Yap says it's important for the initiative to provide livelihood opportunities to communities in need.

"If I go to a factory, the products could be produced in a week's time. Qasem needs at least two months to produce about 2,000 items.

"But it wouldn't be the same if the products were produced in a factory. It's important for us to keep the story of empowering people who need the income," she explains, adding that initial reception to the collection has been encouraging.

A meaningful backstory aside, it's also equally important for the product to be aesthetically pleasing and functional.

"With design incorporated into it, you don't see our upcycled items as a charity product.

"It will be something that you would really want to buy. And with the story behind it, hopefully it would be something that you are willing to pay a bit more for," she concludes.

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