Commence the Graduation Gown Recycling

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Did you keep your diplomas after graduating? Most likely. Did you keep your graduation gown? Probably not.

More than five million graduates wear graduation gowns each year. What happens to those gowns after the ceremony? Usually, they go into a trash can – bound for a landfill somewhere.

The gowns are typically made of polyester. Constructed with a same chemical compound used to make plastic water bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the polyester gowns will not fully decompose once in those landfills.

Greener Grads is a company that is stopping the accumulation of graduation gowns in the landfills and saving graduates some cash, too. The goal of the Michigan-based company is to re-purpose gowns up to 15 times, dramatically reducing the environmental cost of a graduation accessory that might only be used for 90 minutes before heading to the trash bin.

Seth Yon, the founder of Greener Grads, worked for years in the graduation industry. Even after he segued to a graduation gown company that was making gowns out of recycled materials, he couldn’t believe the waste that occurred with each ceremony.

“I watched a ceremony where the graduates were wearing gowns made from recycled materials,” Yon said. “Then I watched the graduates drop the gowns by the handful into the trash can. I was pulling out purple gowns by the armful to save them. I thought that even with the recycled materials, I was just creating a little bit more time before a water bottle got into the landfill.”

An estimated 80-100 million gowns are in landfills, according to Greener Grads, enough to fill 25,000 garbage trucks.

The answer for Yon was to re-purpose the graduation gowns as many times as possible, in other words graduation gown recycling. Greener Grads was created to accept graduation gowns from recent graduates, clean and sanitize them, and rent them out to another new grad.

Not only does the business model keep millions of polyester gowns out of the landfills, but it could reduce a graduate’s expenses.

“It costs anywhere from $40-100 to buy a graduation gown. Obviously graduation is a pretty emotional time, and companies can tag so much cost to the gown because that’s something that everybody has to purchase,” Yon said.

Compare the cost of buying a gown – both the economic and environmental price tag – with the estimated cost of renting a gown from Greener Grads, with a price in the twenty dollar range. Graduates will receive a cap, gown and tassel package through Greener Grads, but can keep the cap and tassel while returning the gown.

Gowns will soon have a barcode, so that graduates can remain engaged in the journey of their graduation gown, often a highly sentimental item.

Repurposed gowns will be steam cleaned with recycled water and no chemicals. Gowns with damage will be repurposed to create graduation caps.

Greener Grads accepts gowns through collection drives from school groups at their graduation events, as well as at Goodwill locations in Michigan. Gowns can also be mailed to Greener Grads.

Feature image courtesy of Andrew Schwegler

Kimberly Button

Kimberly Button is the author of The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home and the Editor-in-Chief of GetGreenBeWell , featuring modern, sane ideas for living a non-toxic life. A professional journalist for nearly two decades, Button has written for magazines such as Martha Stewart's Whole Living, American Airlines, AAA, Sierra, National Geographic Traveler, and Vegetarian Times. Visit KimButton.com for more information.

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