According to The New York Times, Rick Siegel would be in his clothes closet, running late, wrestling with the plastic bags that encased – and the twist ties that entangled – his dry cleaning. Surely, he thought, those twist ties would drive him mad.

A trip to the closet made Jennie Nigrosh’s stomach clench: Where did all this plastic go?

Suddenly Siegel and his wife had an idea: a reusable bag to transport your clothes to and from the dry cleaner. After an initial investment of about $200,000, the Green Garmento was born.

“June 2008, we got our first prototype,” Nigrosh recalls of the Christmas-morning-like feeling she had when they opened it. Then came disaster. “It ripped,” Siegel said, grimacing.

Two years and several design improvements later, they say they’ve sold about 40,000 Green Garmentos – priced at about $5 wholesale, $9.99 retail – and expect to sell an additional 300,000 more by July 2011.

And in March, they got their first outside financing, other than $100,000 that’s come from friends: $350,000 from a small cap investment fund put together by the Progressive Asset Management Group, a brokerage firm that specializes in what it sees as socially responsible investing.

Siegel and Nigrosh say, they’ve begun to alter how a very set-in-its-ways industry thinks about doing business.

For the Green Garmento to succeed requires not just a customer base, after all, but also a cultural shift within the dry-cleaning world. After all, a reusable bag, unlike disposable plastic, must be kept track of and returned to its owner.

“Single-use plastic at dry cleaners has gotten a pass,” Siegel said. “We’re not so much selling our bag as publicizing the concept of the bag.”

According to an analysis of 2005 census figures by the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, 1.4 billion pieces of clothing and other items are professionally cleaned in the United States each year.

If you figure that most cleaners wrap no more than two pieces in a bag, that’s at least 700 million bags a year, or 131 million pounds of plastic gathering dust in the back of our closets.

At 5 to 8 cents a bag – plus twist ties and the like – that adds up, which is why even non-environmentally minded dry cleaners may be open to making the switch.

Photo by The New York Times.