Why Can't You Recycle Graduation Gowns?

This rite of spring has a consequence that lasts way beyond that season. What can be done with those gowns?. (Photo: Armadillo Stock/Shutterstock)

A garnet-colored, 100% polyester graduation gown and cap are on a chair in my bedroom. My son put them there the day after he graduated from high school in June because he didn't know what to do with them. I don't know what to do with them either.

The school doesn't take the gowns and caps back to reuse for the following year's graduates. They're meant to be keepsakes.

But my son doesn't want to keep it and I don't want to keep it either. My son's friends and their parents don't want those gowns either. The tassel with the "17" charm on it is all anyone wants to hang on to.

graduation tassel
Many people see this as the only keepsake necessary from the graduation cap and gown. (Photo: tjp55/Shutterstock)

In a Facebook conversation with other parents, one friend mentioned collecting some gowns to be used for graduations at her employment preparation school. That's a great idea, but she'll only need a handful of them. The rest of the gowns from my son's class along with millions of other graduation gowns from this past spring's ceremonies will never be used again. They've either already made it into the trash to end up in a landfill or they'll be stored away to end up in a landfill eventually, perhaps decades from now.

According to We Hate to Waste, in the past 30 years more than 100 million graduation gowns made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same chemical used in plastic water bottles, have ended up in the waste stream. Plastic water bottles can be recycled. These gowns cannot.

The We Hate to Waste article was written by Seth Yon, who started a business in 2014 called Greener Grads that aimed to collect and rent out these otherwise one-time-use gowns. I was excited to find that there was an organization out there working on a solution to this problem, but the organization was short-lived and Greener Grads is no longer in business.

Graduation Gown Options

Although many schools require students to order and pay for their own gowns, my son's gown was purchased by his high school and paid for with class funds. I didn't know until after graduation that my son wouldn't be returning his gown. The class gowns were purchased through Jostens, a company that makes yearbooks, class rings, graduation gowns and other school memorabilia.

I called Jostens and talked to company representative Jeff Peterson, who was helpful in answering my questions and genuinely understood my concern. He explained that the gown my son wore was not the only option the company offers for graduation. In fact, it seems to be the least sustainable option the company has.

Schools have two options when choosing their graduations gowns, and the decision is made on the administrative level. Schools can pick from rental gowns that are returned to Jostens for eco-friendly cleaning and then sent back to the school for the next graduating class. Or, they can choose from several types of gowns they keep.

Compostable and Recycled Gowns

One option are gowns made from renewable resources that are compostable that include a give-back program where students can enter a code from the gown's tag. When a student enters the code, Jostens makes a donation to a certified 501c3 organization that promotes environmental awareness and issues. These gowns can be shredded and added to a home compost pile, after the recycled plastic zipper is removed.

Another option are gowns made from recycled polyester. Although not recyclable themselves, they are not made from new resources.

Traditional Gowns

Finally, there are gowns simply made from polyester that is neither recycled nor recyclable. This is the type of gown sitting on the chair in my bedroom right now.

Peterson also told me the company is moving toward "more sustainable zero-waste commencement experiences" with partnerships and memberships with environmental organizations like The American Tree Farm System, The Forest Stewardship Council and The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Ed, among others.

Jostens is making efforts to be sustainable. I imagine that they, and other companies that make and sell gowns, would increase their sustainable efforts even further if consumers demanded it.

While I'd be very happy if the company didn't even make non-reusable, non-recyclable graduation gowns and caps, it does offer viable options that schools can choose. And, while Peterson couldn't quote me prices because they vary by school, I suspect that the polyester gowns made from non-recycled material are often the least expensive option. I can understand why some schools, particularly schools in low-income districts where students need to purchase their own gowns, choose this option.

What Consumers Can Do

graduation gown hanging in a teen's room
Today the gown is on a hanger, tomorrow it'll be on the floor or in the trash. (Photo: Tiffanie Lee/Flickr)

With millions of polyester graduation gowns ending up in landfills each year, it's time to raise the consciousness of those who purchase the gowns both at the school level and the student level and start looking for solutions.

I'm not looking for ways to turn these gowns into Halloween costumes or Pinterest-worthy creative methods to preserve or display them. The costumes and preserved gowns will eventually end up in a landfill. I'm looking for solutions that will keep unnecessary polyester gowns from being manufactured in the first place.

One option is to forgo gowns altogether. While the minimalist in me likes this idea, I'll admit the sea of garnet and gold gowns (boys wore garnet, girls wore gold) at my son's graduation added an air of gravitas to the ceremony. Gowns are such a part of the American high school graduation tradition that I don't see many schools doing away with them any time soon.

The other option, and this is the one that I think that has to happen, is for students and parents to work in conjunction with the decision makers at the schools to choose graduation gowns. We need to make it known that we want those more sustainable choices while also being willing to get involved in helping to make those choices.

I have another son who will be graduating in three years. I intend to get involved because the only solution to this problem is to make it go away: for there to be no one-time-use gowns in the graduation ceremony to end up in a landfill at all.