What started out last year as something of a tongue-in-cheek — or in this case, air-in-Ziploc bag — entrepreneurial stunt staged by a pair of Canadians, is now a must-have item in China, where worsening air quality levels prompted officials in Beijing to issue its first ever “red alert” smog warning. The warning, which took effect December 8 — 10, entailed school closures, traffic restrictions and a halt on all construction projects. Grave health advisories were issued to those brave enough to venture outside without a contagion mask.

The unprecedented smog warning also saw a spike in sales of a singular product that, pretty much everywhere outside of China, is considered a stocking stuffer-ready novelty gift. A joke.

I’m talking about canned air — specifically fresh mountain air captured at the source in the pristine mountainous locales of Banff National Park and nearby Lake Louise, Alberta. (Two spectacular examples of Mother Nature's handiwork, if you've never been). Bottled in brushed aluminum canisters that resemble your run-of-the-mill mousse receptacle, Edmonton-based Vitality Air sells its mountain-sourced product for between $14 and $20 depending on the size. Multi-packs are also available as are bottles of premium "recreational" oxygen.

Billed as both "your solution to pollution" and "the next bottlef water" (ugh), the standard 3-liter bottle is good for “up to 80 one second inhalations” and fits snugly within your “purse, satchel, gym bag or backpack.” And go ahead and take it anywhere ... "to your next hockey game, your next yoga class, your next workout, or even your hard night out at partying!"

As reported by CNN, a recent shipment of 500 bottles of Banff-sourced air sent to China sold out within a matter of days. “Now we're taking lots of pre orders for our upcoming shipment," Harrison Wang, Vitality’s director of China operations, explains. “We're getting close to the 1,000 mark.”

“We have sold everything, and we now have a bunch of customers and people wanting to be our distributors," Wang adds to CNBC.

As mentioned, Vitality Air was founded in 2014 as a not-so-serious enterprise by two Canadian startup guys whose friends frequently complained of the poor air quality experienced while traveling in China.

Inspired by these smog-blanketed tales of woe, co-founders Moses Lam and Troy Paquette took to eBay where they managed to sell a Ziploc freezer bag filled with authentic, Rocky Mountain air for 99 cents. A second bag of air sold for upwards of $150 Canadian, giving the duo the idea to transform a one-off prank product lifted straight from "Spaceballs" — “we wanted to do something fun and disruptive so we decided to see if we could sell air,” Lam tells CNN — into a serious business with a marketing strategy firmly fixed on China.

“It's time consuming because every one of these bottles is hand bottled,” says Lam. “We're dealing with fresh air, we want it to be fresh and we don't want to run it through machines which are oiled and greased.”

For the most part, the bottling process remains somewhat of a "trade secret" although Parquette, a former commercial diver who knows a thing or two about oxygen, tells Vice that he does indeed regularly travel from Edmonton to Banff and Lake Louise equipped with giant canisters that he uses to capture the air through a clean compression process. From there, the air is hauled back to Edmonton where it's bottled and distributed at Vitality Air HQ.

So what exactly is the essence of Vitality Air?

Here’s a description of the Banff-bottled fresh air that residents of Beijing and beyond are snatching up en masse:

The sun is rising on the horizon. Sunlight peeks through the trees as you move towards the opening in the trailhead. The pristine wilderness is now behind as you stand on a rocky outcrop, taking in the soaring mountain peaks in front of you. You breathe heavy, filling your lungs with the crisp mountain air, with the slight scent of pine.

Using our bottling technology, these moments have been captured. You can now relive that memory by breathing our 100% Rocky Mountain Air. In the setting of Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada we have painstakingly distilled and bottled the air in this pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site using our patented filtration technique. The air is collected over days, concentrating the essence of where it was captured. Perfection like this takes time.

Aside from Canadians importing aluminum bottles of fresh air, native businesses have cashed in on China’s particulate matter perils including one restaurant in the city of Zhangjiagang, near Shanghai in the Jiangsu province, that has started tacking on a “clean air fee" — a surcharge of roughly 15 cents — to patrons’ bills.

Via [CNN], [CNBC], [Vice]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.