Island Business Invents Greener Way to Freshen Air

Some business ideas seem to come from thin air, but Christopher Tio had the big idea to create a retail product that actually cleans the air without chemicals.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

When a client of interior designer and home contractor Christopher Tio wanted to build a bamboo fence, Tio waded deep into bamboo research. What he found led the Nanaimo-based entrepreneur to ditch the fence and focus on a product that’s evolved from personal interest to universal application.

The airCOAL air freshener’s unique design consists of three eco-fabric pouches — to be used together or cut apart and used separately — filled with bamboo charcoal. The charcoal is activated by placing the air freshener in the sun for one hour. After one year, the bamboo charcoals can be recycled as fertilizer for your garden.

Three years ago, Tio, 44, founded airCOAL, the signature product of his home-based company Westcoast Bamboo Werks. AirCOAL uses bamboo charcoal to make an easy-on-the-environment, scent-free air purifier that eliminates odours and, unlike traditional fresheners, draws in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The idea that rapidly growing bamboo could be harvested to make a product that harmlessly cleans the air fit perfectly with the lifestyle of Tio and his wife, Trang. After the birth of their first child, they agreed to use the minimal amount of chemicals in their house.

“There’s a lot of families like ours that don’t want toxic products in their home,” says Tio, whose four children are aged 10 and under.

An asthma sufferer who had three lung operations between 1993 and 1995, Tio is acutely aware of the toxicity of traditional air fresheners.

“Read the packaging. It says to use them in well-ventilated areas,” he says. Like many, he’d been scentually overwhelmed by potent products that had him running for the nearest exit.

With busy youngsters, and living on a rural acreage, Tio had no shortage of smells to experiment with. “This is certainly a time in your life that you need a deodorizer,” he says with a laugh.

Tio’s prior experience serendipitously seems to have prepared him for his new business. Born in Vancouver, the Victoria-raised Tio studied charcoal drawing at the Victoria College of Art, graduated from the Pacific Design Academy in 1993 and earned a bachelor of fine arts with distinction in 2003 at the University of Victoria. In the renovation business since 2004, Tio’s ability to build what he conjures has been invaluable.

After spending a couple of years creating prototypes, Tio settled on his versatile airCOAL product. Each three-part, pliable blue sack, made from recycled garbage bags (polypropylene), is filled with about 90 grams of bamboo charcoal. The airCOAL can be draped on a hanger, propped into a triangle or cut into three sections. Before first use, the product has to sit in the sun for one hour to reactivate the charcoal, followed by one- to two-hour, rejuvenating solar siestas every 30 days.

Unlike traditional air fresheners, which mask unwanted smells with overpowering, chemically produced scents, airCOAL draws in odours and leaves the space smell-free. Tio claims that one airCOAL replaces 12 500-gram boxes of baking soda.

The other big benefit is that airCOAL captures VOCs like ammonia, methane and formaldehyde. AirCOAL also absorbs smoke. “It’s like a sponge,” says Tio. He tests each new batch of airCOAL by placing products such as gasoline or rubbing alcohol and a sack in a sealed container with a gas detector.

“Within three hours, about 80 per cent of the gases are gone,” he says. And what brings this product full circle is that after one year of use, the airCOAL can be disposed of by burying it in the ground, where it improves the soil as it decomposes.

The sacks are made in China, where the bamboo is grown on plantations and burnt at a very high heat to produce charcoal with superior odour-absorbing abilities. Charcoal from trees could conceivably be used, but bamboo has proven superior at eliminating odours and VOCs.

“Bamboo is four times more effective than wood,” Tio says. That’s because bamboo charcoal is far more porous than other charcoals. As well, bamboo is a grass that can be harvested within seven years of its initial planting.

After launching airCOAL in 2013, and trademarking it in 2014, Tio promoted airCOAL at trade shows to secure retail spots, estimating that his product was not only suitable for grocery outlets, it would fit well into health food, pet, sporting goods and hardware stores, and even car dealerships. 

Roughly 100 retailers, mostly in B.C., sell airCoal. The product is also available on Amazon’s website. Prices vary from $6.99 to $9.99. At least two other companies produce a similar product.

Still, sales have been climbing. After Tio’s first shipment from China of about 200 in May 2015, he finished the year with 5,000 sold. In January, 10,000 arrived, with 7,000 of those sold by May. He expects sales to reach 20,000 in 2016, as he expands to stores across Canada, followed by eventual infiltration into the U.S. Tio’s wife, Trang, packages and labels the airCOALs at their home workshop after the sacks arrive in Nanaimo.

When Tio dropped off airCOAL samples for Brad Johnston, manager of Johnston Wholesale in Nanaimo, Johnston wondered if he was being bamboozled.

Johnston Wholesale is a major wholesaler of health, personal care, cleaning and sundry products throughout B.C. and Alberta.

“It’s a funny thing to get your head around it,” Johnston says. “There’s a big learning curve with this product. It’s not believable unless you know how it works.”

Consumers are used to air fresheners that annouce their presence with an odoriferous shout, so purchasing one that’s in effect silent, is not the norm.  The acid test came when Johnston threw an airCOAL in his son’s hockey bag. The stink was gone, unlike the reeking bags of his son’s team-mates.

Tio scored big at a wholesalers’ meeting in January in Vancouver. “He blew us away,” Johnston recalls, leading to a surge in new retail clients.

While airCOAL costs several times more than the 99 cent “old school” air products, Johnston says customers are increasingly willing to buy healthier items. “It’s the way of the future,” he says. But it’s a polarized future where middle-of-the-road customers are disappearing. Consumers are either going over the top in their lust to buy environmentally friendly, organic goods or else they shun such products.  Despite the divide, there are many repeat airCOAL customers, Johnston says. “It’s an amazing product. Once you try it, it’s difficult to go back to regular products.”

Tio’s vision for his family-run business extends beyond economics. “I tell my children that they are tasked with taking over airCOAL as their vehicle to help people and the planet. I also talk to them frequently about our family’s commitment to building the value of bamboo charcoal as a commodity to support trade in underprivileged areas of the world where plantations are, in China and parts of Western Africa and Jamaica,” says Tio. “The whole point of our business is that it’s for our future generations.”