'Disposable' graduation gowns ending up in landfills

Some artificial fabrics used in the production of grad clothes can harm the environment
Friday, April 25, 2008 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Jeff Barnes listed his graduation cap and gown on eBay, he was thinking more about the environment than his wallet.

Barnes, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment, said he didn’t have the space or the sentimental inclination to keep the gown from his graduation at Macalester College, but didn’t want to throw it away either.

“It might as well go to someone else rather than the landfill,” said Barnes, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

It’s a decision more students face as a growing number of colleges and high schools require graduates to buy gowns rather than rent them. The gowns, made of polyester or acetate, cost about $25 and are designed to be worn once. Some companies market them as “souvenir gowns” and encourage students to hang onto them as keepsakes.

“Thousands of these things end up in landfills,” said Tim Giuliani, who sells graduation gowns through his business, Graduate Affairs.

Giuliani added that he was disappointed gown sales have eclipsed rentals in recent years.

“We have a huge inventory that never gets used,” he said.

The impact of disposable gowns has grown exponentially as graduation ceremonies have expanded beyond high school and college. Today, many schools honor multiple milestones — completing preschool, kindergarten, fifth-grade or eighth-grade — with a stroll in a cap and gown.

And as the milestones pass, the gowns remain. Experts say polyester can take decades to decompose.

Scott Allan bought his first cap and gown four years ago when his son, Andres, graduated from kindergarten.

“I thought it was a bit much,” said Allan, 39, of Birmingham, Ala. “It was only kindergarten.”

But he’s hoping to buy two or three more, eventually: “Medical school would be great.”

Renting reusable gowns would seem to be the more environmentally friendly option, said Sierra Club green living expert Bob Schildgen.

“I think Americans are disgusting with their obsession with convenience,” said Schildgen, author of “Hey Mr. Green.” “It’s not that much trouble to launder a graduation gown.”

Giuliani, the gown salesman, said he tries talking school officials into rentals but most consider collecting and returning the gowns too much of a hassle.

Doug Rosenberg, the director of budgeting for Macalester College, said the “logistical ease” of single-use gowns is a selling point, since schools avoid collecting the gowns afterward.

At Northwest High School in Germantown, Md., school officials use gown sales as a fundraiser, said senior class adviser Clayton Putnam. The price of the gown increases from $60 to $100 as graduation nears, and the additional money goes toward prom, a senior banquet and graduation, he said.

Putnam also sees problems with rented gowns.

“It would be a difficult task to ask (students) to bring them back,” he said. “They’re out the door. They’ve graduated.”

The school has never considered the potential impact on the environment, Putman said, but he can imagine those conversations taking place. It’s something even Jostens, a major provider of graduation-related products, is thinking about, said spokesman Rich Strobe. The majority of its customers choose to buy gowns.

“We see some opportunities in the future,” he said from the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis. “We’re not prepared to talk about those ideas at this point.”

David Baker hopes companies find a better solution. The 56-year-old kept his gown for 10 years after receiving his master’s degree in physical therapy, but recently listed it for free on Craigslist.

“It lost its sentimental appeal,” said Baker, of San Francisco. “If somebody else can use it, I’d like that.”

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