Eco-Friendly Hangers: The Answer to Environmental Hang-Ups?

Garment hangers are easy to dislike as sources of home clutter and all but impossible to avoid as raw materials of environmental overload.

It’s been estimated, for example, that 8 billion hangers—enough to fill 4.6 Empire State Buildings from basement to observation deck—go into landfills every year because there’s no adequate method of recycling them. Plastic hangers may do a bit better in the waste recovery stream than their notorious wire cousins, but not when they contain non-recyclable components or consist of plastics that are difficult to reprocess.

If there ever was a quotidian object crying out for a greening, it is the much-maligned garment hanger—and at last, this necessary nuisance of home and marketplace is getting its chance at environmental respectability.

Innovative suppliers now make them of recycled and recyclable materials that are fully compatible with the waste recovery systems in place in most areas. Some are exploiting their ubiquity by turning them into a powerful channel for brand messaging and product promotion. And at least one earth-minded designer sees them as decorative accessories as well as utility items for keeping shirts, slacks, and skirts neatly stored.

“Delivery mechanism” = package
Hangers aren’t “packages” per se, but their pervasiveness in the consumer-products sphere merits them a place in any serious discussion of trends in eco-sensitive packaging.

Because dry cleaners and retailers rely on them to convey clothing to consumers, says Jeff Jensen, CEO of Vesta Green Marketing Solutions, “they are a delivery mechanism as is any other package.” Increasingly, clothes are shipped from garment factories pre-hung, assuring that end-users eventually will have to make the same decisions about the hangers as they would about boxes or shipping pouches that are no longer needed.

The right decision, say manufacturers of eco-friendly alternatives, is either to bin-sort the hangers along with other recyclable household waste or to delay their entry into landfills by continuing to use them at home. To encourage these outcomes, they’re eliminating metal and other materials that make the conventional hanger, according to Gary Barker, founder and CEO of Greenheart Global Inc., “a nasty little product” to recycle.

Barker’s company offers two kinds of Ditto Hangers: plastic, consisting of 100% virgin PET; and 100% recycled paper, including 70% post-consumer content. From Vesta Green Marketing Solutions come EcoHangers, which combine polypropylene #5 hooks and wrap-around envelopes of 100% recycled paper. (The polypropylene is about to be replaced with more readily recyclable HDPE, Jensen says.)

A product called the smart hanger from a company called media hook is entirely made of 100% recycled paper, including 90% post-consumer content. Ryan Frank, a London-based designer of “free range furniture,” chose paperboard made from reclaimed newsprint for his eye-catching Zilka Hangers. Most uniquely, Merrick Engineering Inc. has added Earthsaver hangers made of POA—a compostable polymer derived from corn—to its line of conventional hangers and closet accessories.

Easier to digest
Hangers changed over to these materials can flow with the waste stream instead of
choking it. Virgin PET, according to Barker, is highly desirable for recovery because it
then can be remanufactured into computer housings, fleece for jackets, and many other useful items. He says that because they fit so well with the plastic recycling protocols that most localities use, “we expect to have 0% of our products go into landfill.”

Merrick Engineering, on the other hand, does anticipate that most of its Earthsaver
hangers will enter landfills. But when this happens, says Francisco Castaneda, director of sales and marketing, it will be just what the company and nature intended. Once buried, the cornbased hangers will return to the earth by breaking down into harmless organic compounds. (POA can be recycled, but not in
systems designed for conventional plastics.)

In Toronto, where media hook CEO Leigh Meadows developed the smart hanger, the product has been deemed acceptable by the city’s Blue Bin recycling program. “Commercial recycling organizations have confirmed that the product, in its
entirety, is and will be recycled,” she says.

Jensen notes that undyed HDPE, which will become the ingredient of EcoHanger hooks in January, is “quite recoverable” by common waste systems and was chosen specifically for that reason. “We can make more hooks from our hooks,” says Jensen, who submits all EcoHanger components for cradle-to-cradle
certification testing by MBDC, the inventor of the cradle-tocradle concept.

“An infinite product life cycle”
Use and re-use minus waste also is what Frank has in mind for Zilka Hangers. He says that they can be “re-pulped and remade into more sheet material or hangers without any loss in quality, therefore creating an infinite product life cycle.” Printed in
vibrant colors and designs, Zilka Hangers are meant to be keepers that consumers will appreciate as much for their aesthetic merits as for their ability to support jackets and blouses. They’re sold as flats from which the die-cut hanger can be removed unless the customer prefers to display the whole thing as wall art.
Either way, the idea is to keep the hangers in closets and out of the waste stream for as long as possible—a pattern that Jensen claims to see among users of his EcoHangers. He says that about 75% of all users keep them for three months, and
that 38% of women retain them for up to one year. When their time is up, some people even return them to the dry cleaner for re-use on that end.

One feature of eco-friendly hangers that consumers should find appealing is their durability. Paper, the manufacturers say, stands up to stress better than conventional metal, which is flimsy, and plastic, which can be brittle. Even hangers made of corn work at least as well as ordinary hangers, says Castaneda,
although he notes that in temperatures above 120º F, the POA in Earthsaver hangers starts to lose its resiliency. Jensen says that EcoHangers can handle 10.5 lbs. of clothing, more than twice as much as would be advisable to place on a
wire hanger. Meadows notes that her company’s smart hangers are hard at work and holding their own in dry-cleaning plants and other demanding environments.

Hangers for Harley
According to Barker, second-generation Ditto Hangers made of highly compressed paper fibers have been tested to 20 lbs. of holding strength. He says that Harley-Davidson has asked Greenheart Global for a Ditto Hanger capable of holding the
motorcycle manufacturer’s branded leather jackets—a challenge that Greenheart Global will rise to by developing and patenting a paper hanger with 60 lbs. of clothes-carrying strength.

Just as recycled printing papers tend to be more expensive than papers made from virgin pulp, hangers made of post-consumer and post-industrial materials aren’t competitive with standard hangers on a unit-cost basis. This is mostly because standard hangers have always been cheap—so cheap, Barker says, that there’s an anti-dumping tariff on wire hangers manufactured in China.

At six cents to eight cents apiece, wire hangers (now sourced mainly from South Korea) cost a fraction of the eco-friendly alternatives. Jensen, for example, acknowledges that EcoHangers are “significantly more expensive” than the wire and plastic hangers they are designed to replace.

But, the price difference isn’t necessarily a barrier to acceptance, and in some applications, it isn’t even an issue. Both Jensen and Meadows can give away their products free of charge to dry cleaners, stores, hotels, and other hanger-using businesses because their products carry billable advertising and promotional messages. The money that clients pay to print their content in this consumer-facing space subsidizes the distribution and generates the revenue. Jensen’s EcoHangers also can be used to deliver booklets and product samples attached to the hangers in biodegradable plastic bags.

Dry cleaners just say yes
These schemes appear to be gaining traction. Meadows reports that the Ontario Fabricare Association, a trade group of about 140 dry cleaning plants and stores, has endorsed smart hangers and will supply them to its members, who can get them free with messaging or pay for “virgin” hangers that carry no advertising. She says that the messaging space also appeals to large organizations, not-for- profits, government agencies, and educational institutions “that want to spread their stewardship message and attach their brand to the green hook initiative.”

Jensen says that many of America’s biggest brands, including Unilever and Avis, have found that EcoHangers let them zero in on the affluent audience of consumers who regularly use dry cleaning services. Armed with Nielsen metrics and brand loyalty studies that credit EcoHangers with a higher “brand to media engagement rating” than ads on television or in magazines, Jensen tells brand owners that campaigns with EcoHangers “cost about one-third as much as direct mail, and offer 95% of the efficacy.”

Ditto Hangers also can carry branding information, and Barker says that when clothing manufacturers and retailers opt to use them, they send a persuasive message about their environmental initiatives and concerns. He maintains that when shoppers see Ditto Hangers, “before the door closes behind you, you know the environmental policy of that company.”

Greenheart Global markets Ditto Hangers primarily to stores, by far the largest users of hangers because of their vast trade in pre-hung clothing. As an approved vendor to retailers including Adidas, The Gap, and L.L. Bean, Greenheart Global supplies the hangers on which clothes are sent to the outlets. The goal, Barker says, is to “make obsolete the standard retail hanger, which has only one function: to defy gravity.”

Hanging in the balance
The challenges of the retail marketplace are also known to Merrick Engineering, which has been selling Earthsaver hangers in stores since 2006. At Walmart, says Castaneda, a $3.99 five-pack of earth-friendly Earthsavers has to compete with 10-packs of standard hangers that sell for $1.99 but offer no environmental benefits. Time will tell, he says, whether rising environmental awareness can take a hanger made of compostable corn into a broader realm of sales than the niche market it presently occupies.

At this point, eco-friendly hangers represent only a small percentage of all hangers in use. But, their manufacturers believe that this will change as consumers begin to learn how much good they can do by switching to hangers that don’t turn into 200 million pounds of non-recyclable steel every year, as hangers from the dry cleaning industry do.

Statistics like that, according to Jensen, are stoking a “growing animosity” toward standard hangers and their environmental downsides. Adopting Eco Hangers as a green alternative, he says, “is like going from coach to first class.”

Meadows agrees that once consumers understand what happens to and because of the non-recyclable hangers they routinely discard, they become “passionate” for finding a better way. That augurs well for products like the smart hanger: “Not having the guilt of having to throw something into the landfill is enormous,” she says.