Putting the Hanger Out to Dry

Putting the Hanger Out to Dry

Those innocuous-looking plastic, metal and wood hangers you get at the dry cleaner and stores have a dark side: not only do they clog landfills, they muck up recycling streams and create extra waste. Now, a handful of manufacturers and purchasers are starting to reimagine this commonplace item.

The plastic hanger lives a life similar to the plastic bag.

In many cases customers get to keep the hangers attached to the clothes they buy for no extra cost. Although the hangers can be readily reused, who doesn't already have a closetful of sturdier hangers? And after a few uses or until too many get piled up, they get tossed in the trash.

Eco-minded consumers might send them to be recycled, though in many cases recycling centers just ship them to the landfill.

"What is the useful life of a product like a hanger? Two weeks? Why is it made out of a material that will last 1,000 years?" said GreenHeart Global's founder and president, Gary Barker.

Just like the plastic bag, which is now under attack from a host of reusable-bag retailers around the world, hanger manufacturers like Oakland, Calif.-based GreenHeart Global and others are trying to make retailers and dry cleaners forget everything they know about what they put clothes on.

Breathing New Life Into An Old Item

GreenHeart Global manufactures paper and plastic Ditto hangers. The paper Dittos are made entirely of recyclable paper and contain 70-100 percent post-consumer recycled content, vegetable-based inks and environmentally friendly adhesives. Plastic Dittos are made of PET, the most-recycled type, and are made of only plastic -- no metal hooks or clips.

The plastic Dittos have a lifespan of 5-10 years, Barker said, and at the end can be recycled along with other PET material. "It's so recyclable, and granted, it's not a sustainable material, it's something that right now is the best solution for this commodity," he said.

For a brief period, Barker considered using bioplastic, though it's currently not a viable solution, he said. Making bioplastic hangers would actually require more energy to produce than other hangers, they cannot be recycled since they could muck up the recycling streams and they need to be composted in commercial facilities, which are fairly rare.

GreenHeart Global went live in November last year, and Barker has spent the last year in talks with a wide variety of companies. San Francisco-based retail giant GAP is using paper Dittos for displaying items in almost 200 outlet stores. GAP's acting CEO at the time, Bob Fisher, connected Barker with the company. In working with GAP, Barker showed the hangers off to almost every department, but it was the marketing department that saw the potential, Barker said, noting how well the earthy look of the hangers complements denim.

Gap jeans on Ditto Hangers

Chris Tewksbury, a member of GAP's sustainability panel, said hangers are just one of the topics the company is looking at as it reviews its store operations. GAP stores use wood hangers for displaying clothes, and keep items on plastic hangers when they're stored in the back, he said. All hangers stay in the store until they break, then they go in the trash.

As Ditto talks and works with more companies, they develop more types of hangers. For GAP, GreenHeart Global is providing paper hangers with removable aluminum clips, so if the paper hangers need to be tossed, the clips can be removed and used elsewhere or recycled.

L.L. Bean is using special sandal hangers GreenHeart Global developed to take up half the retail space of current sandal hangers. Barker is also working with Reebok Canada on hangers for hockey gear and Adidas Germany for hangers with wide shoulders to hold sports equipment.

Maggie's Organics found out about Ditto hangers shortly after they launched. The company sells clothing made from organic and eco-friendly materials in stores like Whole Foods Market and small co-ops, and it wanted to start putting clothes on hangers to display them better. But Maggie's wanted to go with a hanger in line with its mission as an eco-friendly clothing maker, said Katie Dombek-Keith, who handles product design and marketing for Maggie's. The company is using paper Dittos now for baby attire, lounge clothes and scarves. "It really gives a good presentation and brings the whole thing together," Dombek-Keith said.

Although many companies are interested in what GreenHeart Global has to offer, one struggle is getting them past what they're familiar with. "The last 50 years, they've been using the same product," Barker said. "It's getting people to look at them because they've been invisible for so long." Dittos, though, cost more than traditional hangers, and Barker never expects to be able to compete on price alone.

GreenHeart Global isn't the only company trying to green up hangers. The Hanger Network out of New York City makes 100 percent recycled-content hangers, boasting that 35,000 dry cleaners are using its cardboard EcoHangers, with 10 million shipped in 2007. Each hanger is covered with an advertisement, some with coupons. Advertisers order hangers and decide what areas or markets they want to advertise in, and participating cleaners in those areas are then able to order EcoHangers.

Another product, the Australia-based Green Hanger, is made of 100 percent recycled material; as it reaches out to retailers and cleaners, the company is committed to not selling advertising on the hangers. “If it’s going to be an environmental product, how do you select the type of advertisers you want?” Christian Ferrante, one of the company’s founders told The Age’s M-Mag. “We thought, ‘Do we just have environmental messages on it?’, but we looked into the whole printing side of things and we realized that was just another wasteful area.”

There are also a handful of companies making hangers from alternative materials: Wheatware sells compostable hangers derived from wheat, and several companies sell corn- and bamboo-based hangers.

Roadblocks to Sustainability

The movement to change hangers is facing a huge challenge in the VICS (Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Solutions Association) standard, which lays out specific dimensions hangers should conform to. The standard has numerous benefits for businesses -- knowing exactly what hangers will look like and assurance that all hangers from any company following the standard will be the same size. However, Barker says, "The VICS have put a lid on innovation because they all look alike."

The VICS standard also says how much weight hangers should hold, what temperatures they can stand up to and more. The Ditto hangers have not received VICS qualification because Barker doesn't want to share the specifics of Ditto's designs with other VICS members. However, GreenHeart Global used VICS testing facilities and passed the Ditto hangers through most VICS tests. 

Three Simple Steps to Improving Everyday Items Gary Barker has managed to bring new -- and green -- ideas to one of the most commonplace, ubiquitous items in the world. If he can improve upon so simple of an idea, then you can do the same for anything, using some simple advice.

Look at products with fresh eyes: Don't let the current incarnations of items cloud your work. While making Ditto hangers, Barker tried to imagine if hangers had not been created until now. What materials would you use in a new product to have as little impact on the environment as possible?

Use common sense:Think of an item's lifespan when considering what materials are going into it and what can be done with it when its useful life is over.

Think simple: Barker is going after hangers, something practically everyone has in their life. Switching from incandescent to CFL bulbs is one of the most-touted environmental actions. What other basic, everyday items can be changed for the better?

Barker is also facing the larger trend of garment-on-hanger policies. Companies like Old Navy with overseas manufacturing facilities require that every garment made in a facility must be put on a hanger. It's much cheaper and less time-consuming, in some ways, to put items on hangers overseas, as they are made, instead of putting them on reusable hangers at stores. But this policy leads to a hanger being made for every piece of clothing, preventing stores from reusing hangers that customers don't want to take.

Some companies are finding alternatives to landfilling hangers. J.C. Penney hires a company that collects all of its used hangers, separates them and either recycles them or bundles and resells them. In 2007, the company recycled more than 9,000 tons of plastic hangers. Hangers at J.C. Penney stores nationwide are picked up as part of the company's countrywide waste management and recycling contract. After trucks drop off merchandise to stores, they pick up baled cardboard, plastic and hangers, return to a logistics center, and the materials are then sent to be recycled.

Hangers As Kryptonite

In his quest to clean up hangers, Barker, an industrial designer trained as a sculptor, originally wanted to go after metal dry cleaner hangers, what he saw as the most ubiquitous type of hanger. But as he was visiting and speaking with dry cleaners, he inevitably walked by clothing stores and started thinking about all the wire, plastic and wood hangers they, too, were using. Through his research he found that metal wire hangers alone aren't the biggest problem, it's metal and plastic.

Two times as many plastic hangers are sold than wire hangers. Altogether, between 8 billion and 10 billion plastic and wire hangers are made each year, with about 85 percent ending up in landfills.

With the current crop of hangers out there, landfill is practically the only disposal solution.

"We found out hangers are the kryptonite of the (recycling) machinery," Barker said. If workers don't pull wire hangers out of piles of recyclables, they can get stuck in machinery, causing work to halt while the hangers are removed. Plastic hangers aren't much better since they aren't made of PET or HDPE, the most-recycled and only plastics some recyclers take. Wood hangers are even worse, since they can contain wood, metal, adhesives and other materials, making material recovery unlikely. "In most cases they don't even go up the conveyor belt," Barker said.

SOCCRA, a recycling consortium on Oakland County, Mich., recycles metal clothes hangers, but not plastic ones. "In our recycling process, we manually pull hangers out of the incoming recyclable stream as the first step in our process," said Jeff McKeen, SOCCRA's general manager. "If the hangers are not removed up front, they do cause problems with the downstream equipment. We do receive a lot of hangers, so we feel that the manual process is worth it."

Plastic Ditto hangers

Richard Abramowitz, public affairs manager for Waste Management Recycle America, said Waste Management facilities pull some metal items out at the front end of systems, but much of it gets pulled out by magnets along the conveyor belts. "The plastic hangers are another issue and they probably end up being somewhat of a contamination to the system and are most likely collected out at the front end of the system," Abramowitz said.

Barker has taken his plastic hangers (shown at left) to recycling centers and sent other centers notes on the product, showing them they're made of valuable PET and explaining they can be treated like any other PET plastic.

It took Barker about two years to properly engineer the paper Ditto. The main holdup was creating a good structure out of paper and getting the right amount of compression for proper support. Once the structure was in place, it was a breeze, Barker said, to make different shapes and sizes. After that, it only took six months to make a quality plastic hanger.

Barker still has the original hanger molds in GreenHeart Global's basement, along with a small setup for photographing products, boxes and boxes of hangers, and a case of wire, plastic and wood hanger Barker used as inspiration for what he didn't want to make.

"A hanger is just a way to counteract gravity," Barker said. "What we're doing is making it into a statement."