Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Airlines saving lives with trashed leather

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Southwest Airlines recently launched Luv Seat, an upcycling initiative that aims to repurpose 80,000 used leather seat covers. Rather than simply donating the materials, Southwest has partnered with NGOs in Africa that will use them to provide job training and health education. Southwest Airlines recently launched Luv Seat, an upcycling initiative that aims to repurpose 80,000 used leather seat covers. Rather than simply donating the materials, Southwest has partnered with NGOs in Africa that will use them to provide job training and health education.
HIDE CAPTION
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
How planes get a second life
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Southwest Airlines is repurposing 80,000 used leather seat covers
  • The carrier has teamed with African NGOs to reuse the leather
  • The leather will be used in job training and various health education initiatives

(CNN) -- Aviation isn't known as the most eco-friendly industry. Carbon emissions aside, running an airline produces an incredible amount of waste. Everything from uneaten food to outdated uniforms is potential landfill fodder.

Southwest Airlines, for one, has decided to do something about it. After a large-scale redesign of many of its 737 aircraft, the carrier found itself with an excess of 80,000 leather seat covers -- enough to fill the Empire State Building.

"We had this idea of 'could we do something with this leather beyond recycling it or shredding it? Could we repurpose it?'" says Marilee McInnis, the airline's senior manager of culture and communications.

We're just dipping our toe in the water
Marilee McInnis, Southwest Airlines

Southwest dubbed the initiative "Luv Seat: Repurpose with Purpose," and reached out to potential partners to take the used leather, but found that there were few takers.

"It's awesome to have a great idea, but you have to have support for those -- quote-unquote -- great ideas. I worked with our green team for nine months to find a use for the leather. It's actually much harder than you think it would be," says McInnis.

Following the advice of Bill Tiffany, a Southwest VP who grew up in Kenya, the airline started looking towards Africa for recipients of the used leather. Rather than just donating the goods and leaving it there, the airline decided to take a more holistic approach, giving the materials to NGOs that will use them to provide job training and health education.

The main partner is SOS Children's Villages Kenya, which is providing paid apprenticeships and training to orphaned youth, who in turn make shoes and soccer balls from the leather. The shoes are given to Maasai Treads, who distributes them as part of a campaign to fight debilitating foot parasites. The soccer balls are donated to Alive & Kicking, a charity that uses sport to educate young people on HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention.

Alive & Kicking uses sport for health education
Courtesy Southwest Airlines

"It's really easy to donate and walk away. We didn't want to do that. The leather is finite, but the skills these young people will learn will hopefully take them through their lives," says McInnis.

The redesign was itself an environmental measure. The seats were reupholstered with E-leather, a substance created from scraps the leather industry discards. The material is also lighter, reducing the weight of each aircraft by 600 pounds, and saving on fuel.

No incentive

Scott Hamlin, the founder of upcycling company Looptworks and Southwest's only U.S. partner, says the reason companies are resistant to using second-hand materials is that there's no financial imperative.

"It is unfortunately cheaper and easier for most companies to take materials they've used or have purchased at some point in time and just throw them away. Just landfill or incinerate then," he says.

Uniforms like this one donned by United Airlines flight attendants in 1968 are among the most iconic ever made, says collector and aviation enthusiast Cliff Muskiet.
Uniforms like this one donned by United Airlines flight attendants in 1968 are among the most iconic ever made, says collector and aviation enthusiast Cliff Muskiet.
United Airlines (1968)
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Airline uniforms Airline uniforms

There is, however, an ecological incentive. According to Hamlin, who will create special-edition bags from the leather, each bag uses 4,000 gallons less water than if created using virgin leather. He also puts the CO2 reduction at 82%.

"The circular economy starts to work when the value of the carbon emissions and water starts coming into play, like in the UK, where they will soon start having tax benefits for low-carbon companies," he says.

An upcycling uptick?

Though Luv Seat is perhaps the largest airline-led upcycling initiative, it is not the first of its kind. When KLM redesigned cabin crew uniforms in 2011, the carrier had the surplus fabric woven into the carpets that lined the business class cabin in the then-new 747-400 fleet. Air France last year had old uniforms recycled into car insulation, and in the past has repurposed plastic meal trays to create cutlery, and used the cables from seat backs to make headphones.

"When we launch a new product, we always ask, 'what is the life cycle of this product and what will we do with it at the end of its life?'" says Sophie Virapin, Air France's vice president of sustainable development.

It's a trend that's only likely to grow.

"This is a new area for us, and with the leather, we're just dipping our toe in the water," explains McInnis.

"Our CEO has asked, 'what else can we upcycle?' So I'm hoping we'll see upcycling for years to come."

Report: Airline recycling in 'sorry state'

Read: How dead airplanes get a second life

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Japan is set to make its mark in the skies with its first new commercial jet for over 50 years, the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, aka the MRJ.
updated 1:16 AM EDT, Sat October 4, 2014
Think hotels are deliberately blocking your personal Wi-Fi networks so you'll buy theirs?
updated 3:41 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
How would you like to trim three hours off the current commercial jet flight time between Paris and Washington, D.C.?
updated 3:01 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
It's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Aviation isn't known as the most eco-friendly industry; running an airline produces an incredible amount of waste. But some are doing something about it.
updated 11:14 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Airports aren't exactly stress-free zones, but drones, tracking and virtual reality could help make them better places.
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
In many ways, airplanes are a retailer's dream come true. They serve a captive -- often bored -- audience with a disposable income.
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Takeoff on one of Airbus' new A350WXB test planes is a strangely quiet experience.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
What do you pack when you travel? Take a look inside other people's luggage.
updated 11:39 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one between London and New York.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the old adage goes; Airbus unveils revamped A330 airliner.
updated 10:48 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Show us how you travel with twitpics and instagram via #howipack
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT