With graduation rapidly approaching one of the things on each graduate’s list is to secure the requisite cap and gown for the graduation ceremony. Traditionally all caps and gowns are made of polyester and since almost no one wears their cap and gown again after graduation (except for maybe as part of a Halloween costume the following October) nearly 100% of graduation caps and gowns end up in landfills. But polyester does NOT decompose, so unfortunately many dumps are stuck with a lifetime of pomp and circumstance.

But all that is gradually changing. With the introduction of “green” graduation wear, caps and gowns now come in two environmentally-friendly flavors: recyclable and biodegradable.

Two companies make the recyclable caps and gowns: Oak Hall Cap and Gown of Salem, Virginia (their brand is “Greenweaver”), and University Cap and Gown of Lawrence, Massachusetts (theirs is called “UltraGreen”). Each gown is comprised of approximately 23 plastic water bottles and woven into a fabric that is lighter and more breathable than polyester (which is a plus, since graduation typically occurs in June when the weather is warmer). The way it works is that each graduate buys his or her cap and gown (which costs only about $2 more than the polyester versions) and then immediately after the ceremony is over the new graduates simply toss their caps and gowns into recycling bins (provided by the school) before they leave. The caps and gowns are then recycled into new garments for the next batch of grads. In a perfect world NOTHING from graduation ever ends up in a dump, thus taking the graduation garments AND the plastic bottles that created them out of the landfill equation.

The downside of this model, however, is if the graduates don’t recycle their garments, the caps and gowns sit in landfills forever just like the plastic bottles would. So it’s extremely important that the students buy into the fact that they MUST recycle their graduation clothing before they leave the ceremony.

For a biodegradable cap and gown Minneapolis-based Jostens creates a version made from sustainably harvested trees (which is also comfortably lightweight and affordable, yet less sturdy than the plastic bottle based fabric). However, with so many graduation caps and gowns floating around out there (most of which are typically used only once) do we really need to continuously create new ones, even if they are biodegradable? Producing decomposable fabric from trees still uses our natural resources continuously, however, it is better than throwing away polyester caps and gowns that we know will never deteriorate back into the Earth.

So really colleges are left with two environmentally-minded options over using traditional polyester for graduation; recyclable caps and gowns (which do not decompose), or less durable biodegradable caps and gowns that, if they do end up in landfills, will decompose (however, this version drains natural resources being that the garments are made from trees).

There is one other consideration; the recycle caps and gowns presently only come in black (although colors are in the works), while the biodegradable ones are available in six different shades. So if a college is determined to use caps and gowns that are mirror their school color (and their school color isn’t black) then they will have to go with Josten’s biodegradable garments.

Regardless of which option a college chooses selecting either one over polyester is a step in the right direction. With landfill space becoming increasingly scarce, we’re constantly looking for new ways to decrease our collective carbon footprint. So wouldn’t it be great to start off your post college career knowing your cap and gown will never take up permanent residence in some city dump?

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