Just how bad are single-use plastic clothes hangers for the planet? Pretty bad, according to the first study about the consequences of their use in the British market.
It’s not for nothing, after all, that the instruments are known as “fashion’s plastic straws.” Because they’re often made from a complex blend of materials, including polystyrene, that are tough to separate and therefore recycle, plastic hangers have longed proven a quandary for end-of-life management.
Nearly 955 million plastic hangers are employed in the United Kingdom by luxury and discount brands every year, according to a survey of senior fashion professionals commissioned by hanger manufacturer Arch & Hook and published Thursday. Just under two-thirds—60 percent—of all clothing sales are attached to plastic hangers.
Not all of them make it to the rails, either. While some 20 percent of disposable plastic hangers are given away to customers, an estimated 16 percent—or 31 percent in the case of luxury brands—are used for the sole purpose of keeping clothing wrinkle-free as they move from factories to distribution centers and finally to stores. Approximately half of these transport hangers are replaced with better-looking display versions, the study found.
Despite a prevailing desire to reuse and recycle plastic hangers that are no longer required—only 5 percent of the retailers polled admitted to deliberately disposing of them—it is “not always clear” what happens to the discards, said fashion consultant Emma Reed, who co-authored the report with Alana James, a senior fashion lecturer at Northumbria University. Equally underwhelming: Just 35 percent of companies said their hangers were either all or mostly recycled.
“Awareness of how many hangers are discarded is really low in retail, especially for the in-transit phase,” Reed said in a statement. “Fashion professionals are simply not clued up on all the answers.”
Indeed, the results of the survey found a “widespread disregard for hanger toxicity.” Though 82 percent of respondents said sustainability was a factor in the purchase of commodities, only 15 percent of them cited hanger recyclability as a consideration. In addition, 68 percent of those polled were unaware of the material composition of their hangers, a knowledge gap that would “make it difficult or impossible” to recycle them.
Even if recycling were an option, the report noted, the process of breaking down old hangers into pellets and then reforming those pellets into new hangers weakens the plastic to such a degree that they usually can only be re-created two or three times before they must be discarded.
There are no easy solutions, James and Reed said, particularly since the proliferation of fast fashion and the “throwaway society” it promotes increases the consumption of retail commodities such as hangers. Something might be done, however, about boosting industry awareness about the environmental damage caused by the large numbers of plastic hangers entering landfills every year or paring back the annual delivery of 82.6 million redundant hangers through e-commerce channels. There is plenty of opportunity, too, for further research, they added.
“Our eye-opening report is just the tip of the iceberg; data for worldwide hanger usage remains unavailable,” said Sjoerd Fauser, founder and CEO of Arch & Hook, which has been framing its Blue hanger, derived from marine, ocean-bound and post-consumer plastic and part of its hanger collection scheme, as a more sustainable alternative to the common polystyrene version.
For now, the company will continue to educate individuals in the fashion and retail industries on the necessity of considering hanger composition and recycling practices “when implementing change” into their operations, he said. It has its eye on a larger goal, however.
“We are determined to expand the research into other areas, in collaboration with more partners, to unveil the truth, create awareness and turn sustainability into a tangible action,” Fauser added.