10 Facts About Graduation Cap & Gown Waste You Should Know

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Kindergarten, fifth grade, eighth grade, high school, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate degree—one student could graduate up to seven times in his or her lifetime. Multiply that by the millions of graduates each year who wear graduation caps and gowns made of PET plastic and you fail sustainability big time. According to Greener Grads, “Over 3.2 million high school graduates and over 2.4 million college graduates walked across the stage to receive their diploma. Only a very small percentage of graduates in 2013 rented cotton based gowns, meaning in 2013, nearly 5 million graduates wore keepsake gowns.”

“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.” says Seth Yon, founder of Greener Grads.

Keepsake or souvenir gowns are made of thin PET polyester material and are marketed as a cheap option to wear only once during the ceremony. However, these products still require materials and energy to produce, in addition to creating waste that is not biodegradable. Though the traditions of academic dress endure today, the materials have drastically changed. Like much of our clothing now, they are cheaper, less durable, and designed to be tossed after a short time. But education is power and below are 10 facts to learn about graduation caps and gowns.

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1. In 1895, an Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia University to adopt a uniform code of academic dress. Now codified by the American Council on Education, it regulates pattern, materials, and trimmings of the gowns, as well as the colors which represent the different fields of learning.

2. Students are required to wear caps and gowns for graduation ceremonies, sometimes at a cost of hundreds of dollars if they are bought through the school’s designated provider.

3. Renting can reduce a graduate’s expenses (economic, as well as environmental costs). Some of the companies that sell academic dress also rent it. Both Oak Hall and Greener Grads rent caps, gowns, and tassels—the more people who rent with you the cheaper the cost, so tell your classmates or get your school involved.

4. Greener Grads would like to keep all polyester graduation gowns out of our landfills. They collect used graduation gowns, steam clean them, and rent them out up to 12 times before they are downcycled into polyester fill or lining in the production of other products. Damaged gowns are repurposed to create graduation caps.

5. You can donate your old gown to Greener Grads through collection drives at graduation events, at Goodwill locations in Michigan, or through the mail.

rent the runway

Image: Rent the Runway(Graduation)

6. You can even rent the dress you have to wear underneath your gown since you will likely never wear it again either.

7. The mortarboard (aka graduate cap, Oxford cap, trencher, or corner cap) is thought to have derived from the biretta, the four peaked version of which was originally worn by academics holding a doctoral degree from a pontifical university.

8. The most common graduate cap (patented in the US in 1950) presents a special challenge to black women with natural hairstyles.

9. University Cap & Gown has introduced UltraGREEN outfits after weighing the pros and cons of bamboo versus recycled PET fabrics. They encourage the reuse of souvenir gowns, as well as wash and wear rental programs.

10. Oak Hall’s GreenWeaver® and NuHorizon® gowns are made from 100% post consumer plastic bottles. It takes an average of 23 bottles to make each gown and they can be recycled after graduation.

11. In an effort to keep up with sustainability initiatives by their competition, Jostens has created their Elements Collection® constructed of fiber made from wood sourced from renewable, managed forests and zipper tape and teeth made from 100% recycled PET. The fabric was shown in scientific tests to biodegrade under controlled conditions (in a laboratory, biodegradation of 85.5% was achieved within 2 months under specific temperature and humidity conditions). Great, I guess? Jostens will also donate a generous $1 to support “sustainability efforts worldwide” on behalf of students that actually post a code from their gowns.

Images: Olichel, stevensolkuski