Smog alert: Will Chinese buy clean Canadian air for $14 a bottle?

Highlighting the country's foul air crisis, a Canadian company is peddling bottled fresh air in China. 

Aly Song/Reuters
A woman wearing a mask walks past below skyscrapers amid heavy smog at the financial district of Pudong, in Shanghai, China, December 11, 2015.

In China, a nation plagued by air pollution, Canadian entrepreneurs have begun selling bottled clean air.

"Essentially we're selling air," Troy Paquette, one of the co-founders of Vitality Air, told CBC News. "Clean, beautiful, fresh Banff mountain air."

The company says demand for their product from the Rocky Mountain town of Banff and Lake Louise, Canada is skyrocketing in China, where air pollution is a major problem.

Last week, authorities in Beijing issued their first ever "red alert" over high levels of hazardous particles in the air. Schools were urged to close and restrictions were placed on factories and traffic, Peter Ford reported for The Christian Science Monitor.

Last month, air pollution soared in northeast China, reaching 50 times over the safety levels recommended by the World Health Organization.

Smog in China is worst in the winter, due to a combination of coal being burned to heat homes and weather conditions that tend to keep dirty air trapped closer to the ground.

"Many cities in China, including the northeastern provinces, use coal as the major heat generator, which pushes up air pollution levels," said Zhang Bin, an official with Changchun city environmental protection department, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Air pollution has been linked to the deaths of an average of 4,000 people in the country per day. That’s about 1.6 million every year, or 17 percent of all deaths in the nation.

Mr. Paquette and Vitality Air co-founder Moses Lam say they originally had only joked about packaging fresh air and shipping it across the world. According to CBC News, they started with a Ziplocked bag of "Banff air" and sold it on eBay for 99 cents.

On their second attempt, the bag of air sold for $168 after a bidding war.

The two turned it into a legitimate enterprise. The air in a canister sells for $14 to $20, depending on size.

Vitality Air markets itself as “enhancing vitality one breath at a time,” and says it can help with “hangovers, alertness and working out,” as well as being “your solution to pollution."

But critics say this is at best a joke, and at worst a scam. And they say the energy inputs required to make a disposable, pressurized aluminum canister makes the venture hazardous to the environment as it will contribute to air pollution.

Others think that buying bottles of air isn't a practical solution to China's air pollution.

"We need to filter out the particles, the invisible killers, from the air," Wallace Leung, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told CNN. "One bottle of air wouldn't help. I would be very cautious."

While peddling bottled fresh may sound strange, it isn't a new idea. A restaurant in China’s Zhangjiagang city has been caught charging patrons an "air cleaning fee" on top of their food bills, Xinhua news agency reports.

The report says, the restaurant’s owners recently purchased “air filtration machines” following reports of dangerously high pollution levels in the country. They charged one yuan ($0.15 ) per diner to cover the cost of providing clean air inside the establishment.

On a more serious note, in recent years, Chinese authorities have announced major plans to clean up its carbon-heavy energy supply, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year.

In January, a new environmental protection law took effect that imposes heavy fines on polluters. Since then, companies have been fined $18.3 million in 160 cases, China Daily reported in June. In addition, 1,186 companies were shut down entirely, 698 cases resulted in limitations or suspensions on production, 437 cases led to administrative detention, and 429 were charged with environmental crimes, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Beijing is set to close its last coal-fired generators by 2017 and build four gas-fired power and heating plants by next year, say officials.

China has been also investing heavily in solar power. In 2013, it installed a record 12 gigawatts of solar power. In 2014 the country added another 12 gigawatts of solar power, narrowly missing its goal of 14 gigawatts.

In March, Beijing promised to install as much as 17.8 gigawatts of solar projects in 2015. By comparison, the US added 7.3 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2014.

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