The double life of a lifejacket

Have you seen our 235 Made for Life range yet? Since March 2014, 5,000 decommissioned RNLI lifejackets have been living new lives as bags, tablet sleeves and wallets.

This Summer we’ve got some great new designs, perfect for protecting your holiday packing.

But from braving salt blasts and gale force winds to hanging peacefully in your home, how have our lifejackets come this far?

If you’ve ever dithered over which recycling bin to put your plasticated cardboard carton into, spare a thought for Adrian Frogley. As the RNLI’s Disposals Officer, his job is to find the most carbon- and cost-effective ways of discarding RNLI kit at the end of its lifetime. And that means everything from a neoprene wetsuit to a 27-tonne lifeboat.

‘My most unusual job had to be finding someone interested in rehousing a fire simulator,’ Adrian smiles. ‘It was two containers stacked on top of each other, shaped like a boat, that could fill with smoke and water at the push of a button. Pretty niche! We had to get it off-site before the All-weather Lifeboat Centre was built at Poole. In the end it went to a commercial training company, so it’s still keeping people safe.’

Suddenly makes bin day seem a whole lot less of a headache, doesn’t it?

The RNLI has to consider how it will reuse or recycle every piece of kit its lifesavers use.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The RNLI has to consider how it will reuse or recycle every piece of kit its lifesavers use

Saving lives – and more

As an environmentally responsible organisation, we’re not just about protecting life. We’ve made a commitment to consider the environment in everything we manufacture, use and dispose of. That means honouring the waste hierarchy – not a yoga move, but following a thoroughly sensible checklist that favours solutions at the top before venturing further down:

  • REDUCE – lower the amount of waste produced
  • REUSE – use materials repeatedly
  • RE/UPCYCLE – use materials to make new products
  • RECOVERY – recover energy from the waste
  • LANDFILL – dispose of materials as safely as possible

But when you’re dealing with the latest lifesaving kit for over 235 lifeboat stations and more than 220 lifeguarded beaches, it’s no ordinary task.

‘We owed them something better than landfill’

In 2012, a challenge came along that gave us the chance to do something truly innovative.

‘We knew that all our volunteer crews’ lifejackets were due to be replaced with a new design, and that we’d have 5,000 old ones to dispose of,’ explains Adrian. ‘It was an iconic piece of kit, but it was at the end of its service life and expensive to maintain.

‘Also these lifejackets have been keeping our people safe for years. They’ve been there for medal-winning rescues, thousands of lifesaving moments … We owed them something better than landfill.’

Rock crew members get kitted up for a shout in 2010: the lifejackets decommissioned in 2012 had been at the heart of the action since 1992.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Rock crew members get kitted up for a shout in 2010: the lifejackets decommissioned in 2012 had been at the heart of the action since 1992

A project team got together to find ways to save on the estimated £17,000 in disposal costs. They decided on a range of upcycled consumer products that would create something unique and memorable from the materials, as well as raising funds for future kit.

Breaking it down

The first job was to separate every lifejacket into its component parts, a herculean task of wombling carried out by a brilliant team of volunteers. Lights, webbing straps, metal D-rings, whistles (no bells, that we’re aware of) – everything was carefully separated and stored.

It’s fitting that volunteers were the last people to handle the jackets in their original form, as a volunteer crew member is closely connected to their lifejacket throughout their time with the RNLI.

The previous design of lifejackets kept RNLI crew members safe for 20 years.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The previous design of lifejackets kept RNLI crew members safe for 20 years

Join the crew and one of the first things you’ll learn is donning and fitting this piece of kit. You practise and practise until the rhythm of fastening belts and buckles becomes second nature. You could do it in the dark. At 3am after being awake 10 minutes. Because the faster you go, the sooner you’ll reach the person who needs you.

On the first day of their Trainee Crew Course at RNLI College, volunteers learn how to unpack, check and repack their own lifejackets. They learn to lay their hands on a whistle or spray hood in seconds. Hours later, they find out what that reassuring buoyancy feels like as they take the plunge on the Sea Survival course.

Day 1 of the RNLI Trainee Crew Course includes how to unpack, check and repack your lifejacket.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Day 1 of the RNLI Trainee Crew Course includes how to unpack, check and repack your lifejacket

Back home, a lifejacket at a busy lifeboat station like Poole might serve on over 100 rescues in a year, plus hundreds of hours of training time afloat.

235 Made for Life

But back to that growing pile of materials. First on the list was reuse: the buckles from the old lifejackets were transferred to the new design, saving £12,670, and 120 lights went back into stock, saving a further £2,482.

The metal gas cylinders were a bit more tricky, with no obvious market for reuse as they could only be given to safety-controlled projects. Steve Austen, Head of Engineering Support at the time, supervised a project where 1,000 cylinders were used by schoolchildren to propel model cars. The remaining components went to a recycling factory.

A washbag from the original yellow range reuses everything from the lifejacket’s metal D -ring to the internal pockets and manual inflation tag.
A washbag from the original yellow range reuses everything from the lifejacket’s metal D -ring to the internal pockets and manual inflation tag

Everything else would go into the new products, to create tough, rugged items that protect their new charges as well as they did in their past lives.

‘The main challenge was finding a supplier that could handle the volume,’ says Adrian. ‘We’d saved 150 pallets of material from landfill, but most upcyclers in the UK are individuals or small businesses.’

After prototyping products to ensure high quality and ethical manufacturing processes, the project team found a UK supplier who would handmake the range. 235 Made for Life was born, named after the 235 lifeboat stations that had supplied the decommissioned lifejackets.

Many of the products feature a service record – evidence of the yearly overhaul each lifejacket goes through at Crewsaver to make sure it can still fire on all cylinders. This is on top of frequent interim checks carried out locally as part of the lifeboat station’s calendar, as vital as scrubbing the decks or topping up the first aid kit.

Recycled service history labels are a unique reminder of how each lifejacket was looked after during its lifetime.
Recycled service history labels are a unique reminder of how each lifejacket was looked after during its lifetime

It was all yellow … until now

The first range used the yellow innards of the lifejacket, the inflatable bladders that keep the wearer safely above water when deployed. Now these unique materials have been used up, a brand new red range is available made from lifejacket outers, featuring a new barrel bag design.

The latest range is now using the iconic red material and reflective strips from the lifejacket outers.
The latest range is now using the iconic red material and reflective strips from the lifejacket outers

To date, this project has saved the RNLI £17,000 in disposal costs and generated £103,000 of income. Those funds can now be used to protect our crews in future – it’s enough to buy one lifejacket for every lifeboat station in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

The products are making waves in the cultural sector too. In March, 235 Made for Life won Best Product at the Association for Cultural Enterprises Awards. We also won the People’s Choice Award, voted for by the other entrants including the National Trust, Imperial War Museum and the Tate Modern.

‘It's fantastic to have this accolade from ACE, as the award is voted for by our contemporaries,’ says Helen Glossop, RNLI Creative Development Manager, who has worked on the project from the beginning.

Looking to the future

A lot of Adrian’s work is about planning long into the future. ‘You keep chipping away at different ideas until, over time, you’ve created something really special,’ he says. ‘Ideally you get to the point where you’re designing a product’s disposal before you’ve even bought the original materials.’

With an all-weather lifeboat that has a lifespan of several decades, you really can plan ahead. ‘We’ve looked at all sorts of solutions, from floating housing to interesting art projects,’ says Adrian. ‘We’re currently interested in how composite materials are managed. The leisure industry landfill composite boats at the moment. We want to be at the forefront of finding a new life for that material.

Future plans might include reusing materials to make kit for lifeboat crew and lifeguards.
Future plans might include reusing materials to make kit for lifeboat crew and lifeguards

‘In terms of smaller items, it would be great to make something for our lifesavers. Maybe kit bags or neoprene protective cases … and the lifeguards already use hip bags similar to the ones we’re manufacturing. As for 235 Made for Life? We’ll be looking at drysuit and wetsuit materials next.’

Browse the 235 Made for Life range and you’ll find something to protect your kit, the environment, and our volunteers. Pretty neat for something you keep your toothbrush in.

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