I'll Take Airborne Swiffering For $200, Alex
January 8, 2006 3:27 PM   Subscribe

What are disposable airplane headphones made of? And on a vaguely related note, what are those disposable Swiffer cloths made of?

I'm working on a short piece for a Canadian magazine on the increasing ubiquity of one-time-use products, and these two are my preferred examples. But my best research efforts have failed to unearth the exact (or even reliable approximate) compositions of either of them. Now I'm trying to save myself the headache(s) of calling the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and/or Procter & Gamble to get spun answers from the manufacturers themselves.

So far, I've got shortlists of the kinds of plastic and metals that likely make up those headphones, and I know that Swiffer cloths are not permitted in certain green-bin recycling programs because they are presumed to contain synthetic fibres and/or toxins.

Can anyone out there in MeFiLand beat my half-educated guesses? I'd happily send a copy of the magazine the completed article will appear in (Canadian Geographic's spring environment issue) to anyone who can.
posted by gompa to Science & Nature (12 answers total)
Swiffer sheets are "non-brightened polyester", according to the Material Safety Data Sheet.

I imagine that disposable headphones are simply made of plastic, probably cheaper plastic -- perhaps a cornstarch base.
posted by dhartung at 3:44 PM on January 8, 2006

They sell "non-disposable" earbuds at Walmart for a buck, and that's with a profit for Walmart. I assume the airline headsets are just made of normal plastic.
posted by smackfu at 3:58 PM on January 8, 2006

You may be surprised. I once took apart one of those little animal noise-makers I bought in Vancouver's Chinatown. You know, the ones you turn upside-down, and they go MOOoooo? The weight was a lump of clay, and the air pump was a condom.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:00 PM on January 8, 2006

Update: Good catch, dhartung. Send a mailing address to the email address in my profile if you'd like a copy of the mag when it comes out. (I'd actually just stumbled on that data sheet myself moments ago. Remarkably dumb of me to have somehow missed it in my first hunt.)

As for the headphones, I'm most interested in the non-plastic stuff that makes up the wiring, the speakers and the solder joints. Basically, I'm trying to figure out if they are, in their more incremental way, as bad for the environment as larger stuff like CPUs and TVs with their lead and cadmium and antimony.
posted by gompa at 4:32 PM on January 8, 2006

I thought that airline headsets were reusable? Surely it's worth it to replace the foam earpads and sanitize the rest of the headset?
posted by nathan_teske at 4:34 PM on January 8, 2006

nathan_teske: Some airlines do collect them at the end of the flight, but more and more are moving to disposable headsets. I was told by a flight attendant that the sanitizing process was deemed more environmentally damaging than landfilling them.
posted by gompa at 4:49 PM on January 8, 2006

On my last flights (Seattle to Birmingham and back), Delta gave us headphones, but there was no connection to being disposable. In fact, they included an adapter to a regular stereo plug so we could take them home and use them for other things.
posted by Kickstart70 at 5:07 PM on January 8, 2006

the headsets on some planes i have been on don't even have wires or speakers. just tubes that go into like a soundhole in the armrest and direct the sound to your ears. I imagine these could be entirely plastic. I guess on more modern aircrafts these have been replaced with electronic headphones though.
posted by umrain at 6:10 PM on January 8, 2006

I was told by a flight attendant that the sanitizing process was deemed more environmentally damaging than landfilling them.

And I hope you didn't believe it, even if the flight attendant did. Certainly the decision was based purely on cost -- sanitizing them, or even the labor to collect and repackage them with new pads, is more expensive than just throwing them out and replacing them. Environmental costs certainly do not enter into the calculation, unless the government forces them to somehow. And that isn't the case in the U.S., and the way things are headed, never will be ...

There's more if you care.
posted by intermod at 8:04 PM on January 8, 2006

gompa You would think a pass through an industrial dishwasher and a uv light would be enough to get rid of anything a previous passenger may have left on them. It just seems very odd that the airlines would throw away something that can be easily cleaned and reused.

And, besides, I really doubt they pitch them into a landfill and fill over them: there's enough copper in the wires and voice coils to make it worthwhile to recover (maybe not in the first world, but definitely worth shipping to the developing world).
posted by nathan_teske at 8:40 PM on January 8, 2006

intermod: I'm pretty sure it was a cost decision as well, but would love to have hard evidence of that. It's not a specific case stud in The Corporation, is it?

nathan_teske: The overwhelming majority of them probably do end up ultimately in landfills. Large electronic waste - TVs, CPUs, etc. - is salvaged overseas (or, in a couple of rare cases including the province of Alberta where I live, recycled locally). But I can find no evidence of any sort of organized recycling/reuse effort regarding small-scale e-waste. And I know Air Canada for certain defers responsibility to the catering service or airport, which I'm sure turfs the lot of it. (On Air Canada flights, the old headphones wind up in big sacks with the old newspapers, plastic cups and food wrappers, and I'm sure no one's sorting out the recyclables on arrival.
posted by gompa at 9:23 PM on January 8, 2006

More on the Swiffers: they're basically repurposed dryer sheets (think Bounce) without some of the additives. In fact, Bounce sheets work just fine if you've run out of Swiffer pads.
posted by bonehead at 8:31 AM on January 9, 2006

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