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Gowns: Saving students money

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: GREENER GRADS - Greener Grads founder Seth Yon is helping students rent and then recycle graduation gowns rather than purchase them to use only once.  Recycling paper, plastic, aluminum and glass is second nature to many Oregonians.

And many of us take special care to divert batteries and electronics from the landfill and donate unwanted books, clothing and furniture for reuse.

There’s been one pesky item, however, that has never been recycled — until now.

This spring, more than two dozen Oregon high schools will join a new nationwide effort to collect graduation gowns to be recycled and reused.

They’ll be rented and used in graduation ceremonies for years to come, until they outlive their useful life and become fill for furniture or pillows.

“It’s kind of an off-the-radar-screen” problem,” says Seth Yon, the 39-year-old founder of Greener Grads, a Michigan-based nonprofit that launched last April.

Commencement gowns, he says, are “used for such a short time — about 90 minutes — and it’s very emotional that day. ... They’re either being pitched immediately, or end up in our closets.”

In nine months, the Greener Grads initiative caught fire and has kept about 10,000 pounds of polyester out of the landfills, Yon says.

The program has expanded to 20 states, the latest being Oregon.

Elsewhere, the effort has been school by school.

But Oregon is the first state to take it on statewide, Yon says, through a partnership with Oregon Green Schools, the nonprofit that certifies and spearheads school sustainability efforts across the state.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: GREENER GRADS - A recycle bin outside a graduation ceremony encourages graduates to recycle their  gowns after getting their diplomas.The partnership began last year through Jackie Wilson, the sustainability coordinator for the Bend-La Pine School District and an educator at The Environmental Center in Bend.

Wilson tried to launch Greener Grads in Bend high schools last spring but ran out of time before graduation. She suggested Oregon Green Schools take it on in time for the class of 2015.

There are 34 certified Oregon Green Schools, including 29 high schools.

Wilson is working with coordinators at those 29 high schools to set out collection boxes at post-graduation events for students to drop off their gowns.

“It’s not a required part of their (Green School) certification, but it’s a great way kids can take on a project and reduce their own waste,” Wilson says. “I think most of them will really jump on board.”

While past generations of high school seniors were able to rent their graduation gowns, that changed in the 1990s when companies began to mass-produce synthetic ones and sold them as souvenirs to keep. It became standard practice for students to buy their gowns. Gowns also became more widely used for students finishing kindergarten, elementary and middle school.

There’s one feature of Greener Grads that Wilson predicts will be a hit. Each donated gown will receive a barcode, so students may follow their donation through the rest of its useful life.

“It’s a unique way for us to track its travels; a way to prove to students they’re being re-used and how many times they’re being re-used,” Yon says.

The Oregon effort, Yon says, likely will keep about 4,000 pounds of polyester out of Oregon landfills.

It also will boost his overall goal to collect at least 1 million gowns by the end of this year.

For about 25 years, gowns have been manufactured with synthetic petroleum-based material, produced by three major companies.

Polyester is made from polyethylene terephthalate, the same chemical compound used to make plastic water bottles. PET does not fully decompose, and does not biodegrade.

Besides the environmental impacts of keeping all of that polyester out of the landfill — about 5 million gowns are worn by high school and college graduates each year — Yon says there’s another reason schools and states are jumping on board.

At lower-income schools, the cost of the gown often is a huge burden. It levels the playing field when students can pay $20 to $30 for a rental gown through Greener Grads, rather than buy one for up to $140 at some schools, he says.

Yon, who used to work for a large graduation industry company, says he hasn’t heard any rumblings from the three major gown manufacturers yet, but he imagines he will.

“They have a captive audience with an annual reset,” he says. “I’d imagine they’re not real fond of the work we’re doing.”

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