Sunday, June 16, 2024

Celebrating sustainably: A look into the university’s Graduation Gown Recycling program

NewsCampus NewsCelebrating sustainably: A look into the university’s Graduation Gown Recycling program

MATTHEW TRUNFIO
Staff Reporter




Following this year’s Commencement ceremony, graduating seniors will have the opportunity to turn in their gowns to the Graduation Gown Recycling program, one of the university’s newest initiatives to bring about more sustainable operations around campus.

The program collects gowns from donating seniors and stores them until the following spring, when they will be redistributed, at no cost, to graduating seniors experiencing extreme financial hardships. 

The co-directors of the Office of Sustainability, Chris Williams, associate provost for sustainability at the university, and Jefferey Summerhays, director of sustainable operations at the university, operate the program. They aim to help reduce waste and the negative environmental impacts of overconsumption by utilizing each gown to its full potential.

“We all buy graduation gowns and hang them up in our closet and they sit there and gather dust for 40 years,” Williams said. “And that’s just not very sustainable.”

2022 graduate and sustainability senator at the university, Kristie Arlotta, originally spearheaded the program in cooperation with the Office of Sustainability. Tory Glover, 2022-23 president of the university’s student government association, and Taurence Chisholm, program coordinator for the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, helped organize the program.

When asked about the ideas behind the project, Summerhays explained how they hope to increase efficiency around graduation attire through it.

“This is an outfit with a pretty limited use,” Summerhays said. “The only people who keep and use their graduation gowns are Ph.D. candidates, and that is a pretty small sliver of the population.

“The ultimate question is, ‘Do we want to use the finite resources we have on this planet for something like this?’ and our answer is no. While you deserve to have a great time at graduation, here is a sustainable option to help you celebrate so the impact is minimized.”

When garments made of polyester, such as the graduation gowns used at the university, end up in landfills, they break down and release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Through this program, the university can minimize the effect graduation gowns have on the environment.

“Stuff takes decades to start to break down,” Summerhays said. “But just because it starts to break down doesn’t mean it’s okay, because what it’s breaking down into is still a problem.”

As polyester breaks down, it divides into smaller plastic particles that can take thousands of years to decompose. In the meantime, those microplastics invade virtually every part of the environment, including our soils, oceans and bodies. The presence of those microplastics leads to a series of adverse effects in all areas it touches.

Oak Hall, the university’s cap and gown provider, offers a program that allows graduates to send their used ceremonial attire back to the company to be recycled and reconstructed into new products. While the process is circular, Williams noted that there is still unnecessary waste along the way. The graduation gown recycling program seeks to eliminate that waste entirely.

“Instead of trying to collect the gowns to be sent back and reprocessed, which does take a lot of energy, how about we collect the gowns and hold onto them, and then we can give them out to students who are in financial need,” Williams said. “That made a lot more sense to us. It seemed like a more sustainable solution to the problem.”

Williams emphasized how the environmental upside of this program is not the only potential benefit it offers, as he characterized it as a program that “hits on multiple cylinders.”

“Do the math, and we saved approximately $2,500 to $3,000 for students who were struggling,” Williams said.

Williams mentioned stories from qualifying recipients of this year’s gowns whose parents recently lost their jobs, as well as international students who have come overseas with little financial assistance.

“Financial struggles are tough,” Williams said. “But whatever it is, it just feels wonderful to know that we’re doing something to help them out.”

Kelly Cobb, associate professor of fashion and apparel studies, pointed out how this program can be invaluable in the wake of fast fashion. This term refers to the trend of rapidly produced, inexpensive clothing that prioritizes quick turnover and low prices over sustainability and ethical production practices.

“We buy it on short notice to go out on the town, or to go to a special function, and then toss it away,” Cobb said. “These products literally have no use following that initial ‘pop.’”

Cobb also explained how this program can help offset the negative effects of fast fashion. 

“Anything that increases the longevity of a garment is a good thing,” she said. “The number one focus worldwide in circular fashion is extending the useful life of a garment, and that’s what this program does.”

Graduates looking to get involved will be able to do so at a tent outside of the graduation ceremony immediately after commencement, as well as:

  • Trabant Student Center
  • Perkins Student Center
  • UD Bookstore
  • UD Creamery
  • UDontNeedIt
  • Furniture Collection

“We welcome people to get involved,” Summerhays said. “We are looking for ways to expand this outside of just graduation, so check back in the future for updates.”

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