Sriya Chinnam first learned that standard-use graduation gowns were made out of environmentally unfriendly material at the beginning of senior year in her Lincoln High School anthropology class. It made her feel angry and frustrated, like everything in life was being made with single-use, unnecessary materials. So, she pushed Lincoln to adopt a more eco-friendly option.
Some students keep their gowns as a souvenir, but many end up in landfills. This year, although COVID-19 made graduation different from most, many students, including Chinnam, still wore traditional caps and gowns to commemorate the end of their high school careers.
But, starting in 2021, thanks in part to Chinnam, Lincoln seniors will be shrinking their carbon footprints on graduation day.
Most graduation gowns are made of polyester fabric, which is made with petroleum and is harmful for the environment. But, a decade ago, in response to both student and school desires for a sustainable option for gowns, Jostens, the memorabilia company best known for yearbooks and graduation attire, started a new line of caps and gowns called Elements. The line traded polyester for a renewable, bio-based fabric made from wood pulp, and unlike the normal caps and gowns, the Elements line is both compostable and biodegradable. (Note: Not everything labeled as "compostable" can be put in municipal compost bins. Those wanting to turn their gowns into compost should contact their local waste hauler.)
Chinnam was unaware the gowns existed, but when she heard that employees from Jostens — who make the gowns used at Lincoln — were on campus at the beginning of second semester her senior year, she took it as an opportunity to speak to them about the harm they cause to the environment.
"I'm very hungry for change, as most of the youth in our generation are,"Chinnam said. "Talking to the Jostens representative that day really sparked my interest because I just wanted to see what they thought about these gowns being made out of environmentally friendly materials."
After one of the employees told Chinnam about the Elements Collection, she talked to Lincoln's vice principal, James McGee.
"After they told me they had other options, I felt like it was clear what we had to do," she said.
Chinnam, who will start at UC Davis this fall, was part of the Environmental Justice Club at Lincoln for two years and has worked on mandating climate literacy programs for all K-12 schools in the Portland Public Schools (PPS) district. She worked alongside McGee and Lincoln's Counseling Secretary, Katie Leathers, to make the switch to biodegradable gowns happen.
McGee and Leathers had been mulling over the thought of switching, and when Chinnam approached McGee about the harm polyester can cause the planet and why Lincoln shouldn't use gowns made with it, McGee was persuaded.
"It didn't take much for McGee to get convinced because I think that we both understood that there is power in people, there's power in numbers and there's power in doing the right thing,"Chinnam said. "And there's no way that you can get [criticized] for doing the right thing that is going to be benefiting a lot more people and the Earth."
When approached about the idea of making the switch, Jostens was eager to make it a reality.
"We work hard to provide our schools with whatever solutions we can provide to meet their needs," a Jostens representative said. "In this case, there was interest in a more sustainable option for graduation regalia, and we were happy to be able to meet that need with Elements."
Several high schools and colleges across the country move to Elements each year, according to a Jostens representative. Lincoln will begin using the biodegradable gowns in the 2020-21 school year.
The most difficult part of helping coordinate the switch was building relationships and confidence with the administration, Chinnam said. One potential difficulty Leathers cited was the inability of older siblings to pass down their caps and gowns to their younger siblings. This is due to the slight change in design; the new gowns will not match the older ones.
"I'm sure there's going to be a couple years of pushback from maybe a handful of families, but I think, overall, I can take the heat," Leathers said. "It's worth it in the long term. It's all about creating sustainability where we can."
Elements gowns are made the same way as Jostens' traditional gowns but are $2 to $4 more than traditional cap-and-gown set. Chinnam believes the extra expense is worth it.
"The other gowns are made out of synthetic materials, which allows companies like Jostens to lower the price because they already have the manufacturing systems and factories set up to produce exactly what they want,"Chinnam said. "These new gowns are biodegradable, they are going to be more expensive because the production line for biodegradable gowns, or biodegradable anything, isn't as efficient as non-biodegradable items."
Chinnam noted that Lincoln has a system in place to help students rent or borrow gowns.
In years past, Leathers has collected willing students' caps and gowns so that other students could wear them in future years.
This year, though, COVID-19 prevented Leathers from coordinating the senior drop-off. While many seniors had to keep their caps and gowns, the break from tradition made the switch to the new graduation attire easier, Leathers said.
Like any other gown, Elements can be passed on to be reused, but some may choose to keep them or try to find a way to compost them.
"I think the best part of the switch is knowing that those forgotten caps and gowns that end up in the landfill, which is, I'm sure, a huge percentage, will be biodegradable," Leathers said. "Our impact on the environment won't be as [large] because we're cutting out one more piece."
Currently, Lincoln, Franklin and Wilson are the only high schools in the Portland district that have switched to this new, sustainable graduation attire, according to a Jostens representative. As more people speak out on the irreversible effects of climate change, Chinnam hopes that more schools around the state, and eventually the country, will adopt this graduation wear.
"It's awesome that people at Lincoln are going to be wearing these biodegradable graduation gowns that harm the environment less than the other version,"Chinnam said. "I hope that more activists at Lincoln in this upcoming year are able to spark this shift in our entire district the same way Lincoln did."
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