In our modern, fast paced era, we expect obsolescence. Designers even plan for it. That way you'll have to purchase the 5th generation widget to replace your barely worn 4th generation model. It keeps the economy moving.
Like most things you buy today, clothes are intended to phase out of fashion. As we attempt to keep up with fashion trends we end up accumulating more and more in our closets. Spurring on new buying, clothing prices have dropped 25%, and the volume of clothing we purchase has increased 75% between 1992 and 2002.[i]
We rarely consider the consequences of our clothing addiction. This issue is just starting to come into focus as more studies describe the human and environmental effects of our expanding clothing industry.[ii]
To ease our concerns, large clothing companies layout their efforts and dedication to environmental and social issues in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports. These massive CSRs address human rights in factories, conversion to more natural materials, waste reduction in packaging, and carbon foot-prints of their products.
Yet one item is universally missing from these CSR reports. It touches every article of clothing and is touched by every customer. It's the ubiquitous, invisible clothing hanger. It's so prevalent, so insignificant that no one sees it, no one thinks about it, no one cares about what happens to it when it gets thrown into the box under the counter after a sale.
Where do all those thousands upon thousands of hangers go at the end of the day? Alarmingly the vast majority end up in landfills via the store's dumpster. How many hangers are we talking about? The landfilled waste they create world-wide would fill 4.6 Empire State Buildings each and every year. The annually trashed 8 billion invisible plastic and metal hangers entering out municipal waste stream are now becoming a very dire issue.
Along with the rising number of clothing that we consume each year, the increasing volume of hanger waste is further fueled by the relatively recent clothing industry trend of "floor ready" garment systems. Clothing made overseas are pre-hung on plastic hangers at the factories. Since each article comes with its own hanger, each hanger's lifespan is as long as it takes to sell the garment. These one-use hangers can have a lifespan of a day, a week, certainly no longer than 3 months before the new season's lineup replaces the old. Hangers are designed weaker and made from cheaper un-recyclable, unidentifiable material to achieve lower upfront costs. In rare cases they go home with the customers, but they eventually meet their destiny in landfills no matter which path it takes.
But why can't they be recycled? The reason is that hangers are Kryptonite to recycling facilities. All-wire hangers and plastic hangers have wire hooks which wrap around and jam expensive recycling equipment, causing entire lines to shut down while the wire is cut out. The typical plastic-and-wire hanger can consist of 7 different types of low-grade plastics, difficult if not impossible to identify on a rapidly moving recycling line. The materials are so low-grade it's often not worth the time and trouble to separate them, so they're universally banned. The only accepted path ends in a landfill.
Once in landfills, these plastics can leach harmful chemicals into ground water, air, and soil. Benzene, a known carcinogen, leaches from [#6] PS-Polystyrene. The hormone disruptor Bisphenol-A leaches from  PS-Polycarbonate. Over 6 billions pounds of Bisphenol-A are produced every year[iii] with 2 hundred thousand pounds escaping into the environment annually.[iv] A recent study by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 95% of Americans now carry measurable amounts of bisphenol-A in their bodies.[v]
Not all stores have adopted the floor-ready system and many prefer a durable, reusable hanger, often made from wood. Although they appear natural and organic, many times they are not a solution to the problem. Wood hangers are reusable, but not recyclable. The metal hooks, clips, bars and non-slip pads create hurdles in the proper separation of materials for recycling. Wooden hangers today are treated with preservative chemicals, stains, glues, varnishes, and are coated with oil based lacquer finishes. These chemicals release high amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. The American Lung Association reports VOCs contribute to many respiratory illnesses and in extreme cases even death[vi].
If the wooden hanger is not treated with any chemicals, its material could be composted or ground into chips for a second life. However retail locations in which these hangers are used rarely have on-site composting or commercially hauled organics collection systems. Very few companies use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood in their hangers. So most wood hangers come from sources that are not managed and renewable.
Another source of the hangers in our closets are from dry cleaners. The dry cleaning industry goes through 3.5 billion wire hangers each year.[vii] That is equivalent to 200 million pounds of steel, or 60,000 automobiles. Though steel is widely recycled without downgrading in quality wire hangers are still not accepted by most recyclers. The amount of steel reclaimed in a single hanger is not efficient. Many of the hangers have a thin coating on them, such as a petroleum polymer, which can be problematic in recycling. Their shapes and materials can clog and entangle recycling facility equipment, as they catch around mechanisms and jam systems. Many environmentalists recommend returning the hangers to the dry-cleaners for reuse, if they accept them. Others are pushing the dry cleaners to use one of the new alternatives.
Hangers that have been used until now were designed without any environmental consequences in mind. A new generation of hangers intends to expose and fix this wasteful and toxic situation. This new generation of consciously designed alternatives must be durable, re-usable, recyclable, readily available for customer use, and promise to redirect the old hangers from landfill to obsolescence.
GreenHeart Global, an Oakland, California, based company, has created their 100% recyclable line of hangers under the name Ditto Hanger. Their choice of material and the hangers' design are intended to make them easily recyclable.
Ditto has created two lines of hangers. Ditto's Paper Hangers, intended to replace the billions of plastic-and-wire hangers, are made from chlorine free recycled paper, natural dyes, and starch based adhesives. Their more durable line is made from #1 PET, which is the same plastic used for water bottles, and the most recyclable plastic world-wide. These hangers intend to replace the wooden hangers that have unnamed treatments, varnishes, and adhesives, which may be toxic, and prevent them from being composted or turned into other products. Each line is strictly one material, which avoids the problem of handling multiple materials (such as plastic body and embedded steel hook) that make conventional hangers so difficult to recycle.
Other companies are making hangers from bamboo, a quickly renewing resource, or wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Ecowood Retail Display's B*Green and the Merrick's Earthsaver are two examples of bamboo hangers. Merrick has also released another Earthsaver hanger line, made from corn based plastics. Both Merrick lines are for sale to residents to use in their closets through large retailers like Target or Wal-Mart. Another company named Hanger Network has created the Eco-Hanger, replacing the wire hangers used by dry cleaners with paper ones that have advertising to offset the higher costs.
These companies are redesigning the ubiquitous hanger and exposing an unseen waste problem. As people catch on, these new alternatives will put pressure on the existing systems to adopt a more intelligently designed solution.
www.dittohangers.com www.ecowooddisplays.com www.hangernetwork.com www.merrickengineering.com
Gary Barker is President and CEO of GreenHeart Global, a sustainable product development and manufacturing company based out of Oakland, CA. [www.greenheartglobal.com]
[i] Cox, Stan. Dress for Excess: The cost of our clothing addiction. Alternet.org. Nov. 30, 2007 [ii] Cox, Stan. Dress for Excess: The cost of our clothing addiction. Alternet.org. Nov. 30, 2007 [iii] Susiarjo M, Hassold TJ, Freeman E, Hunt PA. 2007. Bisphenol A exposure in utero disrupts early oogenesis in the mouse. PLoS Genetics 3(1):63-70. [iv] Markey CM, Michaelson CL, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2001. Alkylphenols and bisphenol A as environmental estrogens. In: Metzler M (Ed.), The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry. Part L, Endocrine Disruptors-Part I, vol. 3. Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 129-153. [v] Calafat AM, Kuklenyik Z, Reidy JA, Caudill SP, Ekong J, Needham LL. 2005. Urinary concentrations of
bisphenol A and 4-nonylphenol in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives 113:391-395. [vi] http://www.lungusa.org/site/apps/s/content.asp?c=dvLUK9O0E&b=34706&ct=142852 [vii] Hanger Network http://www.hangernetwork.com/