What's the Most Sustainable Material for Daily Life? The Answer May Be Hiding in Plain Sight

This article was published in collaboration with GlobalPossibilities.org.

When industrial designer Gary Barker was looking to start a company that would allow him to realize his lifelong dream of designing and manufacturing the perfect sustainable product, cardboard coat hangers were the last thing he had in mind.

“We were looking for an everyday ubiquitous product that everyone touched, so my partner at the time came up with the hanger, which I thought was the stupidest idea,” Barker recalls. “Everybody hates their hanger, and I didn't want to be a hanger designer.”
Not a subscriber to Utopian visions of society happily turning away from its consumerist ways any time soon, Barker knew that the best way to reduce the negative impact of the things we buy is by making them out of the right material for the length of time they’re used, the systems that are in place, and the end of its life. The more he thought about it, the more it dawned on him that right there, in the drab and anonymous world of coat hanger design, lay hidden one of the greatest untapped opportunities for innovation in making mass consumer products that dazzle with style while staying clear of landfills and oceans.
 “When I realized that hanger design hadn't changed in sixty years, it dawned on me how brilliant this was,” Barker describes the evolution in his thinking. “I started looking at stores to see what was being recycled, and it was cardboard boxes. So we knew we had to make it out of paper.”
Barker set out to find 100% recycled cardboard that was sturdy, beautiful, and contained no formaldehyde, chlorine, or heavy metals. He came across a high quality, clean, long fiber material used for electronic insulation and the back of photo frames. His team figured out a process of laminating the screen sides of the cardboard plates with a starch-based adhesive, which presses all the water out, making the material even stronger. Then the fun part — they dye-cut the compressed plates into coat hangers of all shapes and sizes, and, using soy-based inks, got creative with logo and design ideas for potential buyers. The result were 100% recyclable and compostable hangers with a naturally beautiful look that caught the eye of major clothing retailers like The Gap and Adidas. Thus began Ditto Hangers and Gary Barker’s adventure in redefining the meaning and purpose of cardboard.
A readily available, easily recyclable resource
Cardboard has been around for almost 200 years, but it became what we know it as today when Scotsman Robert Gair invented the pre-cut cardboard box in 1890. Like an old faithful friend, it has pretty much stayed true to itself as a reliable packaging material, ranging from cereal boxes to cigarette cartons to postal deliveries. It is there for you when your next move is imminent, your pizza is delivered, or your car is leaking oil. Save for the occasional—excuse the pun—out-of-the-box uses like Transmogrifiers or Cerebral Enhance-o-trons, cardboard inspires neither poetry nor causes much anguish — it is what it is, we all know it, and that’s that.
Aside from the fact that there is something familiar and soothing about a cardboard box, there are economic and environmental reasons why we’re not shipping grandma’s Christmas present in a plastic or other yet-undiscovered-super-synthetic-material container. According to the Bureau of International Recycling, more than 400 million tons of paper and cardboard are produced worldwide every year, with more than half coming from recovered sources. Recycling one ton of paper saves up to 31 trees, 4,000 kWh of energy, 1.7 barrels of oil, 7,000 gallons of water and 4.5 cubic yards of landfill space. Due to the volume, the price of cardboard has remained stable over the years, making it an attractive choice for manufacturers.
Compare that with the increasingly visible true cost of plastic, most of which does not get recycled, and it becomes clear why our old companion cardboard is experiencing a renaissance among forward-thinking, environmentally conscious innovators and businesses. 
“It's always been thought of as a throw away material,” say Gary Barker. “But so many great things are being made of it, some of them quite beautiful.”
Not just packaging anymore
Ditto Hangers is just one in a new generation of cardboard products that are currently in various stages of prototyping or already appearing on the market. New uses range from the functional, like vacuum cleaners or desktop computers, and the comfortable, like beds or sofas, to the strangely logical, like the cardboard coffin. The versatile material has inspired low-budget solutions such as $5 solar-powered ovens that eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood, as well as high-end design projects such as a Dutch advertising agency’s cardboard office
Most recently, an Israeli inventor named Izhar Gafni built the first cardboard bicycle, setting the internet abuzz with his $9 creation made entirely out of recycled and used cardboard that he estimates could be sold to consumers for $60 to $90. Started as a personal challenge to his engineering friends, Gafni began to experiment with ways to make recycled cardboard dense enough to be waterproof and strong enough to carry a 300 pound person. Using the Japanese origami technique, the cardboard gained three times the strength each time he folded it, and before long he had his first cardboard bicycle. 
While Gafni was able to ride around on it, the prototype still looked like a delivery box on wheels, so he went back to the drafting table to design a lighter, more stylish model that would look and feel just like a bike. The final product is a slim and racy head-turner sporting different color-coated materials for the frame, tires, and comfortable seat, all made from cardboard. Gafni is still working on improving the design, but he says that the current version of his low-carbon vehicle will get you through at least two rainy winters, with no maintenance or flat tires. As people around the world are trying to get their hands on one of his bikes, Gafni is already thinking of new things to make from the versatile material, including a cardboard car using solar and human energy. 
The way of the future
The jury is still out on whether cardboard bicycles are the way of the future. As with anything, there is no one-size-fits-all material that suits every occasion. While a cardboard bike may be the perfect solution for a cheap vacation vehicle that’s easily disposed of after its use, a good old-fashioned and well maintained metal bike may be a more environmentally sensible choice for riders intending to exchange long-term vows with their spoked friend. While an office made entirely of cardboard may go viral in a “furniture porn” sort of way, it is probably not going to be the most practical and sought after interior decor for the average business owner. But just as most people are not going to wear the Hollywood starlet’s fashion wear, the ideas presented by the trendsetters can inspire new possibilities for the rest of us. We’ve seen George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Tesla Roadsters and Jessica Alba on a Vélib', so why not Angelina Jolie in a cardboard evening dress?
Ultimately, using cardboard for the greatest good for people and planet comes down to four factors: functionality, volume, perception, and marketing. Combining the four is where Gary Barker has made the most inroads with Ditto Hangers, but there are many other products that could follow suit in these categories.  
People often equate eco products with things that don’t work. We’ve all had an encounter with a scratchy hemp sweater or an herbal laundry detergent that smelled nice but didn’t quite clean your clothes. But what if a green product is not only not worse, but better than its conventional counterpart? What if it is designed and applied in ways that leverage its natural qualities to its advantage? 
Cardboard has many such qualities that give it an edge over other, less sustainable materials. Using cardboard as a computer case, for example, utilizes the existing slots in the corrugated material as natural ventilation for the hard drive. While hot air usually collects inside the plastic cases of traditional computers, causing cooling fans to go into overdrive, suck electricity, and make buzzing noises, the honeycomb cardboard case allows cool air to flow in and hot air to radiate out. 
Another application, the cardboard tent, has the potential to make the life of open-air concert organizers easier while at the same time creating less waste. The beeswax-coated and potato-pegged temporary abodes are fully waterproof and biodegradable, saving the grounds crews from having to pick through and dispose of a devastated post-party tent salad. Instead, the tents can simply be left to decompose and replenish the soil in the process.
In the case of cardboard hangers, I have personally found several functional advantages that would make me want to buy them even if they weren’t better for the planet. For one, unlike wire hangers, they’re incredibly sturdy and don’t turn into pretzels over time. Unlike plastic hangers, your clothes don’t keep sliding off and fall on the ground. Also, the sleek design of cardboard hangers allows you to fit a lot more clothes on your rack. While cardboard hangers are unsuited to break into a car, get better TV reception, unclog a vacuum cleaner, or roast marshmallows, they offer a range of practical advantages that make everyday life easier.
Think of the most mundane personal items that pass through your hand every day and multiply it by the number of people in the U.S, and perhaps in the world. Your shampoo bottle, your razor, your mop, your sunglasses, your... coat hangers. Then think of all the utilitarian and industrial type things that you never think about but without which the world as we know it couldn’t function: the trash can, garden bench, store shelf, the pallet. How much of an impact would it have if those things were made from 100% recycled and recyclable cardboard, going from cradle to cradle rather than from cradle to grave?
Ikea, for example, ships products on 10 million pallets every year, and their recent shift to cardboard has had a huge impact. Not only are cardboard pallets 90% lighter and 33% thinner than wood and reduce transport and energy costs by 10%, but they can be pulped and recycled, which works well in a one-way shipping model where wooden pallets often end up in landfills.
In the case of coat hangers, the Garment on Hangers system prevalent in the clothing industry ensures that the minute a hanger is sold it is thrown away. According to Gary Barker, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 billion plastic hangers made every year, of which 8 billion — or the equivalent of 4.5 Empire State buildings — go in the landfill. Recycling facilities do not accept wire or plastic hangers, and wire hangers are doubly problematic as they foul up and twist into the drums that separate different materials. Cardboard hangers, by contrast, can simply be tossed in the paper recycling bin, or if your city has a composting program, in the compost bin. That’s 4.5 Empire State buildings of waste not created.
“Hangers have been invisible,” say Barker, “and the reason they're invisible is that hanger companies don't want innovation because they make a tremendous amount of money.” 
In other words, there is no incentive for hanger companies to improve their product in a triple bottom line direction, unless our collective thinking about the meaning of these seemingly mundane items in our life evolves.  
While functionality and volume are essential qualities in achieving the broadest possible usage of an established eco-friendly material, acceptance of a new material or new uses of an old material into our daily life depends on whether we connect with it emotionally. It helps if a product is practical, but for people to give up their loyalty to an old work horse there has to be something cool, fun, pretty, and exciting about the new material. 
Letting the natural beauty of cardboard be the centerpiece of the design rather than trying to emulate more synthetic materials with coats of oil-based sealants or plastic veneers is a big part of changing public perception of what’s beautiful. Just as hospitality and retail aesthetic has been moving from splashy neon displays and big steel, titanium, and vinyl installations in the 1980s and 90s to more simple and organic contemporary materials like reclaimed wood or bamboo, the secret to a successful cardboard renaissance is to embrace its natural beauty. 
For Gary Barker, industrial designers play an important role in shifting public perception about these base materials. “Rather than making things as glitzy as possible, we need to think about simple ways to do complex things,” he says of the potential of materials like cardboard to capture our collective imagination. “Simplicity is really beautiful if it's designed properly and you're not trying to make it look like something else.”
Just as designers need to become more educated about its beauty, strength, and versatility, it’s important to inspire and teach the next generation of builders and consumers about the many benefits of cardboard. The Chicago Children’s Museum’s current exhibit, UNBOXED: Adventures in Cardboard, is another indicator that we are entering the era of Cardboard 2.0. From castles, space stations, and hot-air balloons to a stunning 3-D cardboard mural, the exhibit is a laboratory for young and old to experiment with the limitless potential of this simple material.
The marketing factor
The most well-kept secret perhaps about the ability of cardboard not only to capture our collective imagination but to be its own agent of change is its potential as a marketing tool. As long as we live in an economic system based on consumption and materialism, the most effective way to reduce our footprint is to create green products that are the messenger as well as the message. It’s an important piece of the puzzle that Gary Barker realized when he was struggling to sell clothing retailers on his cardboard hangers.
 “When we first marketed ourselves, we did it as designers. We said, look how beautiful our hangers are, we bring out the beauty in your fabrics. That didn't work so well. So we changed it to, ‘look, you're killing baby seals, you've gotta use it because it's environmental!’ That didn't go over well. Then we finally started saying, ‘look at the marketing power of this, think about what this does in the store. All a plastic or wire hanger does is defy gravity, that's it. It just hangs clothing in space. But here you can have different languages, get rid of labels, and come up with a very distinct look for your hangers. You have a marketing tool, a communication device, a way for your branding to go into homes.’”
The numbers prove him right. When Ditto custom-designed a cardboard shoe hanger for Acorn Slippers, sales went up 50 percent last year and are on track for 70 percent this year. After first balking at the price, Disney realized the huge marketing value of the hangers and ordered 10 million of them. The Gap, going beyond in-store hangers, asked Ditto to design cardboard signage and POP displays for their new L.A. stores, in an effort to connect with a younger demographic. 
Next up, Gary Barker is planning to shift his cardboard design skills back to his first love, furniture. “I think cardboard is the savior of humanity, but it's all about finding the right applications.”

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.