Southwest Airlines upcycles 43 acres of leather seat covers

soccer ball made from recycled aircraft seat covers
© Southwest Airlines

Flying is a major topic when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, but airplanes have other environmental impacts too. A massive amount of material is used in an airline’s fleet of planes, and keeping those planes up-to-date can generate a considerable amount of waste.

When Southwest Airlines introduced a redesign in 2012, they were able to lighten their 737-700 aircraft by over 600 pounds by replacing leather seat covers with lighter materials. But they didn’t want the 43 acres of leather to wind up in the landfill. So, Southwest has been working to find nonprofit partners to upcycle the leather into usable products. The initiative is called LUV Seat—a play on the company’s ticker symbol and a hint at the social good they hope the project will bring to their charity partners.

Marilee McInnis, a senior manager at Southwest who worked on LUV Seat, said that in previous re-designs, the old materials were simply discarded. “I think that’s an example of how thinking is evolving around sustainability,” she said. “When we re-did the interiors this time, we really wanted to think about what was coming off the aircraft a little bit differently.”

McInnis said Southwest spent over a year looking for places that could accept such a large donation of leather, which proved to be a challenge. Some potential partners didn’t have the ability to work with used leather, while others couldn’t handle the scale.

Southwest turned to several organizations based in Kenya that were already using leather for social good. With the help of SOS Children's Villages Kenya, Alive & Kicking, Maasai Treads, and Life Beads Kenya, young people participate in paid apprenticeships to learn leather crafting skills while producing shoes and soccer balls.

As word about the pilot project has spread, McInnis said that other organizations have come to Southwest’s attention, including TeamLift in Malawi and Looptworks, based in Portland. “We have so much leather that we hope more partners will come on board.”

Southwest’s partners in Nairobi began making prototypes about six months ago, and the full initiative launched earlier this week. Completed shoes will be distributed by Ahadi Trust Keyna as part of an effort to protect people from jigger (chigoe flea) infestations throughout Kenya. Other shoes will be donated to children living in SOS’s villages and to the Cura Orphanage in Kenya. With the help of Alive & Kicking, the soccer balls will be distributed to the SOS community and to local schools.

Southwest Airlines. One seat cover can make roughly four soccer balls./CC BY 1.0

However, seat covers are just one part of an airplane. McInnis said Southwest is just stepping into the world of upcycling, and that she has had conversations with CEO Gary Kelly about what else can be upcycled, like snack packages and other waste streams.

“We’re just starting, but I hope that it is going to continue and that we are going to be looking at other materials,” said McInnis. “We really want the idea of capturing these materials and upcycling them to be a long-term commitment for Southwest.”

But that's still in the future. “Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of leather.”

Tags: Kenya | Upcycling

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