Caps and gowns ending up as waste

Renting gowns used to be more commonplace.

Holly Miller

After thousands of University graduates this month toss their caps into the air, most will eventually toss their cap and gown into the trash.

Tim Giuliani, owner of Graduate Affairs, a California-based company that sells caps and gowns, said as the graduation business moved away from rentals and toward one-time use gowns, no one thought of the waste it would create.

“We would imagine that most (caps and gowns) are sitting in someone’s closet,” he said. “Or, simply thrown out after a period of time when people realize there is no use for them.”

Renting gowns used to be more commonplace, he said, but after larger companies like Jostens and Herff Jones began offering the disposable gowns free with a class ring purchase, the market changed.

“Our business is probably 60 percent sales versus about 40 percent rentals,” Giuliani said.

Bob Crabb, director of University bookstores, estimated the school’s bookstore sells between 5,000 and 6,000 caps and gowns each year.

Most of those sales are for those with undergraduate and master’s degrees, as costlier Ph.D. gowns are available to rent.

The bookstore sells the one-time use undergraduate gown with cap and tassel for $33, while Ph.D. gowns – adorned with more elaborate features like hoods and piping – run close to $600.

Rich Stoebe, spokesman for Minneapolis-based Jostens, said although the company still offers a rental service, the popularity of single-use gowns increased in the 1970s, which he attributed to convenience.

And that convenience is one of the main reasons the University bookstore chooses to sell disposable gowns for undergraduate commencement ceremonies, Crabb said.

“If you rent, then you take them back and you have to get them dry cleaned,” he said. “To try to dry clean 6,000 to 7,000 gowns, I think environmentally is probably much more damaging than maybe the alternative.”

But the polyester that makes up the one-time-use gowns is unlikely to decompose at all, said Mrinal Bhattacharya, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering.

“Just looking at it, it would be easier to dry clean them and reuse them, than to just throw them away,” he said.

Although cost may drive their decisions, some seniors are looking for ways to reuse and recycle gowns.

When public relations senior Angela Damiani purchased her cap and gown a few weeks ago, the cost of the traditional commencement attire was weighing on her mind more than whether it was environmentally friendly.

Damiani said her brother will be attending the University in the fall, and like she did with her high school cap and gown, she’ll save it for him.

“(The cap and gown) are not that big of deal for most people, so they are like, ‘I guess I will just pay the $30 because I have to walk anyway,’ without thinking about the ‘ungreen’ aspect of it,” she said.

Fish and wildlife senior Becca Haack said she’s taking advantage of the opportunity to borrow a cap and gown from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences.

“It’s a huge waste,” she said. “Nobody wears them again and it’s just for the formality of it. I feel like it’s a waste of money and a waste of resources.”

Prior to hearing about borrowing a cap and gown, Haack said she and her roommate were going to share a set, as they’re graduating on different dates.

Students don’t realize how many gowns are purchased, later to wind up in the trash heap, she said.

“I haven’t looked at my high school gown once,” Haack said. “The only reason I still have it is because I haven’t made the effort to get rid of it yet.”

Crabb said he’d be willing to consider a more environmentally friendly alternative in the future.

“The green element is definitely a big component of what we’ve seen (with other products), but we haven’t seen anything viable in the cap-and-gown industry,” he said.

For that to change, consumers will have to be proactive, Giuliani said.

“In our society we are looking for quick, easy gratification in all aspects,” he said. “If there is a quicker, easier way to do something, we will do it regardless of the potential outcome.”