After years of working in the graduation industry, I saw firsthand the amount of new gowns that were sold each year. Specifically, high school and collegiate graduates wear more than five million graduation gowns annually. This number is only growing with the onset of kindergarten, fifth and eighth grade graduation ceremonies across the U.S.
Graduation gowns used to be constructed from cotton and then rented for the big day.
But over the past 30 years, the scholastic industry transitioned from cotton to polyester, the popular petroleum-based fabric of the 1970s (think leisure suit). Polyester is constructed out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same chemical compound used to make plastic water bottles. This product has been positioned as a ‘one-time’ use or ‘keepsake’ item, when the product has only been worn for 90 minutes. In that 30-year time period, over 100 million gowns have been added to the waste stream, which causes detrimental problems to the environment.
Eco-Friendly Graduation Gowns Still End Up Getting Trashed
The idea of reusing gowns came to me after attending a graduation where the students wore gowns made from recycled water bottles, which I thought was a solution to polyester and much more sustainable. But I watched in horror as the students tossed the gowns into the trash following the ceremony. The truth is that discarding these ‘eco-friendly’ gowns is no different than discarding ones made from virgin polyester ones. Studies have shown that it can take approximately 450 years for ONE plastic water bottle to begin decomposition in the perfect environment, including direct sunlight, optimal soil composition and water levels, etc. – a specific and delicate combination that can never be fully achieved in a landfill.
Gowns Made from Renewable Materials are not ‘Biodegradable’.
An alternate to polyester, acetate gowns made from wood-based cellulose may be made from natural materials, but they will not readily biodegrade in landfills, as some manufacturers claim. For more on the issue, see this op-ed piece in the LA TIMES. Recycling the gowns made from recycled polyester is an option, but it’s better for the environment if all gowns are simply reused again and again.
Greener Grads Collects, Rents, Reuses and Repurposes Existing Gowns
With Greener Grads, after each graduation, the gowns that we collect are steam cleaned and pressed, ready to rent to the next graduates. Each gown is bar-coded to track its travels in order to share with subsequent graduates where it’s been worn. And each gown can be rented 12 to 15 times before it’s time to consider repurposing. Polyester is a strong material that can be used for fill material and can be recycled after its wearing capability expires.
We launched on Earth Day 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the goal of collecting 10,000 gowns.
That goal quickly grew with the plan to recover, reuse and repurpose one million graduation gowns by the end of 2015, which will prevent 588,235 gallons of oil from being used to produce new gowns.
So far we’ve partnered with Goodwill Industries of West Michigan, Aquinas College, Berea College, Kendall College of Art and Design, Michigan Green Schools, Susan G. Komen of West Michigan, University of Louisville and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
While our goal may be a bit ambitious, so I need your help to keep as many graduation gowns out of landfills as possible this graduation season. Please spread the word about Greener Grads. If you are a student, staff or faculty member interested in joining our cause, please comment below or get in touch with us directly to organize a gown collection event.
Do You Remember What You Did with Your Graduation Gown?
Is it still sitting in a dusty box in the attic or did it end up in the trash? How can we ‘graduate’ from trashing gowns to reusing them? How can we turn this into a national movement this year and every other ?
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