From Airbag to Airpaq: College Kids Think Big, Save Tons of Auto Waste
Luckily, two college freshmen at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, were naïve enough to take their bicycles to the scrapyard. In a previous stroke of fortune, the freshmen, Adrian Goosses and Michael Widmann, had been assigned as roommates and had quickly hit it off. Now they were looking for a cool recycling project for their first semester “strategic entrepreneurship” course—maybe they could turn old tires into comfortable lounge chairs, they thought.
“Everybody gets around by bike in Rotterdam,” says Goosses, now 32, from his home in Cologne, Germany. “The tires were way too heavy and cumbersome to transport by bike,” Widmann chimes in via Zoom from Bolzano, Italy, where he lives.
Sifting through the car trash for something handier led the two students to an idea that has since flourished: Could the airbag and seatbelts from a banged up compact car be salvaged and turned into a sustainable backpack? The size of the airbag was already a natural fit. The seatbelts made perfect shoulder straps. After returning from the scrapyard, “We stitched the prototype together by hand with a needle and yarn,” says Goosses. “Yet we didn’t even know how to sew!”
Much to their surprise, their classmates responded with so much enthusiasm to their “trash bag” concept that it convinced the two innovators to keep going. Every semester, they improved the prototype further. With the help of YouTube videos, they taught themselves how to sew. Because modern electric sewing machines had a difficult time breaking through the tough nylon of the airbags, Goosses and Widmann went to a second-hand shop and purchased an ancient Singer from 1880 for 10 Euros. They dyed the first airbags in a saucepan in the garden outside of the apartment they shared.
“By the time we graduated, we had a presentable prototype and a business plan,” Goosses says.
Despite their progress, Goosses and Widmann are up against a problem that’s immense: Cars are notoriously difficult to recycle because many parts are considered toxic waste.
It’s an example of “upcycling,” when you spot a potential new use in something that’s been trashed, shelved or otherwise retired. The approach has received increasing attention and support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to boost sustainability in all kinds of areas, from fashion (where even luxury brands like Balenciaga or Coach repurpose vintage clothing and bags) to architecture, where reusing wood, steel and bricks significantly reduces a building’s carbon footprint.
In addition to helping the planet, those who do it well can make a living from it. These days, Goosses and Widmann own a flourishing company: Airpaq. A crowdfunding campaign in 2017 yielded 70,000 Euros to get them started. Since then, they have upcycled 80,000 airbags, 100,000 seatbelts and 28,000 belt buckles – the equivalent of 60 tons of car trash.
For the successful upcycling, they received the 2021 German Design Award and, earlier this year, the renowned German Sustainability Award. The jurors evaluating the product commented that the startup “convinced us not only because of their uncompromising quality and functionality but also because of their ecological and ethical values….How well the startup translates upcycling and green fashion into an urban lifestyle brand is impressive.”
Despite their progress, Goosses and Widmann are up against a problem that’s immense: Cars are notoriously difficult to recycle because many parts are considered toxic waste. Therefore, up to 25% of vehicle scraps get shredded every year in Germany alone, the equivalent of over 501,000 tons. Because airbags and seatbelts are nearly indestructible, they are costly to recycle and almost always end up in landfills. Given that airbags and seatbelts save lives, they are subject to stringent security regulations, and manufacturers have a sky-high reject rate. “If a tiny filament protrudes somewhere, the manufacturer will throw out the entire output,” Widmann explains.
The nearly indestructible qualities that make this material very difficult to recycle render it an excellent resource for backpacks. “The material is so durable, you almost cannot tear it,” Goosses adds and demonstrates with a hard tug that even when the material already has a hole, it won’t rip it further. The material is also water repellent and extremely light.
The antique Singer is still in their Cologne headquarters but only as decoration. Their company with 12 employees is producing 500 backpacks and fanny packs every week in Romania, where the parts are professionally cut by laser, dyed and sewed. Airpaq still procures the belt buckles at scrapyards but they get most of the airbags directly from the reject pile of a nearby airbag producer. “We process the materials where they are produced,” Goosses explains. Only about 15 miles lie between one of Europe’s biggest airbag manufacturers and the Airpaq seamsters in Romania.
Co-founders Adrian Goosses and Michael Widmann demonstrate their company's equation: airbag plus seatbelt equals a backpack that's durable and eco-friendly.
The founders are aware that with price tags ranging from 100 to 160 Euro - a cost that reflects their intensive production process - Airpaq’s bags are hardly competitive. After all, anybody can buy a discount backpack for a fraction of the cost. So they recently added fanny packs for 30 Euro to their product line. Goosses and Widmann know they will need to lower their prices in the long run if they want to expand. Among other things, they didn’t pay themselves salaries during the first two years after founding the company.
Money-making isn’t their only objective. “Of course, it would be cheaper if we did what almost all textile producers do and move production to Asia,” Goosses says. That wasn’t an option for him. “Ship trash to Vietnam and let seamsters sew it together for cheap? No way, that would be anything but sustainable,” he says.
Michael Widmann’s family was already operating a textile production in Romania, mainly producing thin, elastic sports fashion. The family allowed Widmann and Goosses to produce their first professional prototypes there, but then the two youngsters had to buy their own machines, acquire the necessary knowhow, and hire their staff. They both moved to Romania for six months “to get to know the people behind the machines.” The founders emphasize that they pay fair wages, use eco-certified dyes and clean their own wastewater. “Normal production uses five to six liters of water per kilo material,” Widmann explains. “We only need a fraction because we massage the dye into the material by hand: 100 ml water for washing and dying per kilo.”
However, every time they return to the scrapyard, the abundance of trash sparks new ideas. “When you see how much material ends up there…” Widmann says, shaking his head without finishing the sentence. Goosses picks up the train of thought: “We want to make upcycling the new standard. You just have to be creative to get upcycling into the mainstream.”
And maybe they’ll return to their roots and finally find an idea for the tires after all. “One could turn the rubber into soles for comfortable shoes,” Widmann thinks out loud.
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”