Students wearing graduation hat and gown

Like so many products, graduation gowns has changed over the years — and not for the better. Once made out of cotton and rented for the ceremony, over the past three decades, graduation gowns have transitioned to polyester, a petroleum-based fabric that does not biodegrade. Along with being far cheaper to produce, they’ve been touted as “keepsake” items that graduates must purchase — and, eventually, dispose of.

Most graduates keep only the tassel from their hat, tossing the cap and gown as soon as the ceremony ends. More than 5 million gowns wind up in landfills every year, adding to the plastic waste stream and causing great harm to the environment.

This waste crisis has led some graduation attire companies to turn their focus to sustainability. Oak Hall is one such company. Their GreenWeaver and NuHorizon gowns are woven with yarn made out of 100 percent post-consumer plastic bottles. After graduation, gowns are recycled and reprocessed into new product.

Ways to Reuse Graduation Gowns

Unfortunately, it will be a while before all caps and gowns are made of eco-friendly or recyclable materials. For those of us who still have PET gowns collecting dust in the back of our closets — or youngsters getting close to graduation day — other sustainable avenues must be found. Though the thin, scratchy material is unsuitable for reuse in keepsake blankets or pillowcases, there are multiple ways to reuse the gowns in their entirety. Consider the following:

  • Pass your regalia down to a younger friend or family member who can use it at a subsequent commencement ceremony.
  • Take it back to your school — they may have a program for assisting low-income students with graduation costs. If they don’t, encourage them to start one.
  • Donate it to a thrift store — you never know when members of the community may be in need of an affordable option for graduation.
  • Offer up caps and gowns to a daycare or preschool for use in dress-up play.
  • Check with your local theaters to see if their costume departments could use the gowns.

Have an Eco-Friendly Graduation Celebration

While you’re thinking about the sustainability aspect of graduation, make sure your celebration is as green as possible. Encourage friends and family members to carpool, walk or take public transportation to the graduation venue and your party afterward. Ask for eco-friendly graduation gifts, such as a gift of money, an experience (e.g., concert tickets) or a charitable donation in your name. Use reusable plates, glasses, silverware and tablecloths, and request that no balloons be purchased for either yourself or the decor.

Encourage Manufacturers and Schools to Go Green

As society becomes more aware of the environmental dangers of single-use plastics, we expect that the reduced demand will result in fewer of these environmentally damaging items being manufactured in the future. Perhaps it won’t be too much longer until we see our graduation regalia made of cotton again. Maybe we can even reinstate the practice of renting gowns for the day so they can be reused by the next graduating class.

Until then, we’ll need to be as creative as possible in our reuse efforts. Let’s keep those gowns out of the landfills.

Editor’s Note: An reader let us know that you can donate unwanted caps and gowns to independent religious schools and organizations that help students earn a GED, such as Hephzibah House.

By Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.