Why These Students Wore Trash to Graduation

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Oak Hall Cap and Gown is one of several graduation apparel companies offering caps and gowns made from 100-percent recycled plastic #1 bottles. It takes 23 discarded soda and water bottles to make one of Oak Hall’s GreenWeaver graduation gowns. Photo: Oak Hall

It’s graduation season, and this year, many students’ caps and gowns will be green – and we don’t mean the color.

At least four academic apparel companies are offering eco-friendly graduation caps and gowns, trading in the polyester typically used in conventional graduation gowns for fiber made from sustainably-harvested forests or recycled plastic. The companies are also looking for ways to keep used, unwanted gowns out of the landfill.

They agree that sales of these products are only increasing, despite the slightly higher cost of the green gowns.

Turning Soda Bottles Into Caps and Gowns

Three of the four companies sell gowns made from 100-percent recycled plastic #1 PET bottles; it takes between 16-30 post-consumer bottles to make up one cap and gown pair, depending on the gown size and company.

Making clothing out of discarded soda and water bottles isn’t a new idea.

Patagonia has been using plastic bottles to make their polar fleece for years,” says Duane Fox, president of Massachusetts-based University Cap and Gown whose UltraGreen cap and gown are made of recycled plastic bottles. “The fabric is fairly durable, washable and wrinkle-resistant.”

WATCH: VIDEO: What Happens to Plastic Water Bottles?

Although graduation season is still underway, Fox estimates that so far, about 8-9 percent of this year’s orders from colleges, including Colby College and the University of New Hampshire, was for the UltraGreen gown – up from 6 percent last year.

Two other makers of graduation regalia, Willsie Cap and Gown and Oak Hall Cap and Gown, also use recycled PET fiber in their environmentally friendly graduation wear.

“The number of accounts [buying the “greengown” product] has increased 300 percent since last year,” says Steve Killen, Willsie’s vice president, sales and marketing.

The Omaha-based company landed its first big account for the greengown with the University of Minnesota in 2009, having sold a handful of the gowns on the Internet in prior years. Now Willsie provides greengowns to Michigan State University, University of Colorado and University of Missouri, among others.

Oak Hall researched several fabric sources for their GreenWeaver gown before reaching the conclusion that recycled plastic bottles were the most environmentally responsible choice for their company, according to their website. The Virginia company considered bamboo: Although renewable and fast-growing, it requires harsh chemicals to be broken down into fabric.

They also vetoed turning wood pulp from sustainably-managed forests into acetate fabric; they did not like the quality of acetate, finding it hot and prone to wrinkles, and felt turning a waste product into a new material was more beneficial to the environment.

“In the 2009-2010 school year, 75 universities used GreenWeaver. In 2010-2011, over 225 used GreenWeaver,” says Donna Hodges, Oak Hall vice president. “We have now exceeded [recycling] 7 million plastic bottles.”

Clients for Oak Hall’s GreenWeaver gown now include such schools as the universities of San Diego, Vermont, Michigan and Alaska, both Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses.

Jostens’ Elements Collection features acetate caps and gowns, made of wood pulp from sustainably-managed forests. Photo: Jostens

Can You Compost a Graduation Gown?

Another graduation apparel company Jostens took a different route for their line of green graduation wear, their Elements Collection. Unlike Oak Hall, they have been satisfied with the quality of acetate and use wood harvested from sustainably-managed forests for their eco-friendly gowns. The Elements gown also features a zipper made of 100-percent recycled PET plastic.

Because the gown is made from wood fiber, Jostens says tests have shown the gown can decompose in soil in one year. The cap and gown’s packaging is made from a special “bio-film” material that also degrades in soil, the Minneapolis-based company says.

The products cannot decompose quickly in landfills, which are designed to prevent material from breaking down and creating pollution.

Jostens says tests are underway to determine if the gown can be composted through curbside composting collection programs.

READ: SunChips Compost Experiment: Month 1

This is the second year Jostens has offered the Elements Collection, and though they don’t release specific sales numbers, Director of Communications Rich Stoebe says, “We are very pleased with customer acceptance of the Elements Collection.”

It’s Not a Green Gown If It Ends Up in a Landfill

While Jostens investigates composting for its Elements Collection, the other companies that sell recycled-plastic gowns are also considering what happens to their products when the graduation ceremonies are over. Recognizing that their products aren’t truly sustainable if they simply end up in a landfill, each company has established a recycling or reuse program for their recycled-content gowns.

READ: 10 Things You Never Knew Were Recyclable

After University Cap and Gown sold UltraGreen gowns to the 2010 graduating class of Colby College, the school’s student council collected any unwanted gowns from graduates.

“We cleaned and re-packaged the gowns, added a new cap and 2011 tassel, and offered the gown to graduates of this year’s class,” Fox says.

While the price of the hand-me-down gown wasn’t lower than a brand new one, due to the company’s handling and cleaning costs, it gave students the option to make an eco-minded choice.

Willsie offers graduates wearing its greengown a printable shipping label online, so they can mail back unwanted gowns for recycling or reuse. Although the company doesn’t reveal the specific details of its gown recycling program – it regards them as proprietary information – Killen says they donate gowns or find other uses for them.

Oak Hall Cap and Gown also accepts GreenWeaver gowns back from graduates for recycling.

“They do not get made into new gowns, but are chopped up and turned into recycled product for carpets, filling in clothing and office furniture,” Hodges says.

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