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.
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 scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.