Last year, when China stopped taking plastic recycling from the U.S. and other Western nations, the owners of Glyndon Lord Baltimore Cleaners began to look into ways their business could be more eco-friendly.
Sisters-in-law Janet and Christy Garman, whose family owns the dry-cleaning business, wanted to encourage customers to return and recycle the plastic garment bags that held their freshly cleaned clothing. The wire hangers, they knew, could be reused in some way, too. But how? Janet decided to reach out to Maryland Institute College of Art. “MICA is a hub for creativity,” she says. “I thought if anyone could take this and run with it, it’s MICA.”
Leslie Speer, who chairs the school’s product design program, saw the email and immediately thought “huge material supply” she says. Speer teaches design ethics and sustainability to students who were getting ready to make a project following the principles of that class. The recycled plastic bags and wire hangers would be the perfect stuff to start with.
“How do you make a product that elevates the materials?” Speer asks as a challenge to her students. “How do you make something that people don’t want to throw away and send back into the waste stream?”
Their final products include a braided dog leash, a flexible laundry basket and a fun statement belt, all made from layers of plastic bags that were melted and sealed to create a thicker, bendable substance. Other students created plant holders and wall sconces made from hangers that were sanded, smoothed and coated with a clear covering.
The sconce is a “great look for a restaurant,” Janet says, as she and Christy look over the students’ work one recent afternoon. Students had four weeks to complete the project, which had to have the capability of being mass produced. At the end of the semester, they presented their work to Christy, who offered her feedback and encouragement.
Speer hopes a few of the students will reproduce their projects in time for the Art Market held at MICA each December and possibly make a little profit for their work. The Garmans hope they will be able to sell some of the goods, such as the belt, at their stores. Mostly, they are eager to keep working with MICA, says Janet, who has arrived at Speer’s classroom with a car full of plastic bags for the next group of students.
Part of the reason they are so interested in recycling, the sisters-in-law say, is because they want their kids to be proud of the family business. Finding a good partner is key for a project like this, Janet adds, and they feel lucky to work with MICA.
“If a family business can do it, a large corporation can do it, too,” she says.