Hangers? I mean, seriously, do we really need eco-friendly clothing hangers?
"Do we ever," says Danny Schrager, CEO of Mountain Valley Recycling in Morristown, Tenn. "Ninety percent of America's clothes are now imported, and every garment that comes in from overseas comes in on a hanger — 30 to 40 billion of them each year."
Laid end to end, 40 billion coat hangers would stretch about 8 million miles, far beyond the orbit of the moon.
Worse, most of these hangers are plastic and have a lifespan of one season — about three months. And until very recently, few were recycled.
The problems are twofold. Not only do a great many hangers use metal hooks, but most have tissue paper, foam, fabric and bits of soft clear plastic (all imported garments arrive in plastic bags) still stuck to them.
The results are a materials menagerie that most recycling centers can't process.
On top of that, hangers are made from seven different types of plastic. While department-store clerks rarely bother separating the K-resin from the polystyrene No. 6, our recycling machines can't handle blends.
That's why 85 percent of plastic hangers end up in landfills, leaching toxins like benzene and bisphenol-A into the ground water along the way, according to Schrager.
To do something about this problem, Schrager founded Mountain Valley Recycling in 2003. The company takes in raw materials for recycling, and its sister company, Next Life, of Boca Raton, Fla., turns them into consumer products.
Working directly with retailers such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Mountain Valley uses a proprietary technology capable of sorting polymers to recycle 25 million pounds of hangers a year — no matter what they're made of, or what's still clinging to them.
The resulting plastic is then either sold for commercial use (thus greening another company's supply chains) or sent on to Next Life, which shapes recycled plastic into everything from shopping carts to industrial-sized garbage bins.
"And when those products eventually wear out," says Schrager, "Mountain Valley starts the whole process over again."
Schrager's hook isn't the only one around. Ditto Hangers, a subsidiary of Green Heart Global in Oakland, Calif., offers its client retailers, including the Gap and L.L. Bean, a choice: a 100 percent recycled paper hanger or a 100 percent recycled PET (soda-bottle plastic) model.
Ditto also sells directly to consumers by the carton or the 10-pack — phone orders only at 510-261-7383.
And then there's the dry-cleaning industry, which is a whole different story because its machines prefer wire hangers, about 3.3. billion of them a year.
In March, the Commerce Department found that Chinese factories were dumping wire hangers below cost on the U.S. market, and immediately slapped a tariff on all imported wire hangers.
That helped the sole remaining U.S. manufacturer, M&B Hanger Company of Leeds, Ala., recapture a big chunk of the market.
But it also led to thousands of mom-and-pop dry-cleaning firms crying foul as the price of each hanger shot up from four cents to 10 cents. Many of them began asking customers to bring unused wire hangers back.
Until then, only about 10 percent of wire coat hangers ended up getting reused or recycled, according to Bob Kantor of eco-hanger maker Hanger Network. The rest, roughly 100 tons per year, ended up in landfills.
"It doesn't have to work that way," points out Greg Crawford of the Pittsburgh-based Steel Recycling Institute. "Steel hangers are completely recyclable. The only problem is that many municipalities haven't formally included them in their recycling programs."
M&B has started to make its hangers from recycled steel, though even with the tariffs it accounts for only a third of the market.
Working on the other two-thirds is the New York City-based Hanger Network founded by Kantor, a former advertising executive.
Its EcoHangers are built in two parts: The body is 100 percent post-consumer waste paperboard, the neck is built from recycled polypropylene No. 5, the plastic used in bottle caps.
"It's 50 percent stronger than a regular hanger," says Kantor.
Currently 35,000 dry cleaners have made the switch to EcoHangers. How much do they cost? That's the brilliant part.
Kantor provides EcoHangers free of charge to dry cleaners, but with advertising included. The nape of the hangers been pre-sold to companies such as Staples, Levi Strauss and Miller, which use them as mini-billboards.
In 2009, the EcoHanger will be available for consumers, which brings us to the last and smallest pocket of the U.S. clothes-hanger market — the 500 million plastic, wood and wire hangers bought each year at retail stores.
Attacking the high end of this sector are industrial designers such as London-based Ryan Frank, whose Zilka hangers, made from compressed old newspapers, come in retro designs and with built in tie hooks — though at 22 dollars each they don't come cheap.
For those on a budget, Merrick Engineering of Corona, Calif., makes a line of "Earthsaver" bamboo hangers, which are sold at Target stores. An earlier line of corn-based hangers sold at Wal-Mart was discontinued when the cost of biofuels soared in the past few years.
Or, well, you could just throw all your clothes in a pile in the corner and avoid the whole mess.