DURHAM, N.H. — College seniors across the country are getting ready to toss their caps in the air and their gowns into recycling bins.
For years, eco-conscious campuses have been trying to reduce the environmental impact of commencement ceremonies by using less electricity or printing programs on recycled paper. Now, academic apparel manufacturers are jumping in with "green" options, ranging from disposable gowns that decompose quickly in soil to gowns made of recycled plastic bottles that can be reused or recycled.
The new products are an alternative to the petroleum-based polyester gowns millions of graduates buy each year then promptly throw away or stuff in their closets. Manufacturers say the new gowns are a bit softer and more breathable than the traditional gowns, but otherwise are indistinguishable.
"It feels a bit thinner which actually would be good for spring commencements because it's going to be hot outside," said Abbie Tumbleson, a senior at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. "It doesn't look cheaply made."
At Oak Hall Cap and Gown in Virginia, officials settled on fabric made from recycled plastic after samples made from sustainable bamboo failed to impress customer service reps who wore them for a day.
"By the end of the day, they looked like they had slept in the gowns for about two weeks," said vice president Donna Hodges. "A lot of students will get the gown out of the bag 10 minutes before lineup, so we knew that wasn't go to work."
About 100 schools ordered the new gowns this spring, compared to about 1,500 who stayed with the polyester, Hodges said.
University Cap and Gown in Lawrence, Mass., also is offering recycled bottle gowns this year. Company president Duane Fox said his company was ahead of the curve when it began using biodegradable detergents to clean its rental gowns years ago. In designing the new gowns, the company focused on finding a fabric that could withstand multiple wearings, said Fox, who estimates that about 7 percent of his customers ordered the new gowns, including the University of New Hampshire and Colby College in Maine.
Ensuring that students return their gowns is key, because otherwise companies are just replacing bottles in landfills with fabric in landfills, said the Sierra Club's Jennifer Schwab.
"It's always better to reuse. We don't really want to put new items into the waste stream, period, if we can help it," she said.
She's also not a fan of the type of gown being sold by Minneapolis-based Jostens, which also plans to donate $1 to an environmental cause each time graduates enter a code printed on the gown's tag. Its gowns are made of acetate – a material made from sustainably harvested trees that will decompose in a landfill within a year.
"It's better than a polyester gown that's not biodegradable, but first and foremost, there's probably enough graduation gowns floating out there that you could reuse them for several years," she said.
And even reusing the new gowns five or seven times isn't ideal, she said.
"That's good for the bottom line, but that's not really good for the environment," she said.
Jostens offers the biodegradable gowns in six colors, while the gowns made of plastic bottles are available only in black for now. Prices vary widely from school to school. For example, UNH charges students $16.25 for a cap and gown, while the University of Vermont charges $34. The wholesale price of "green" gowns is usually a few dollars more than polyester, but some schools have chosen not to pass along the increase to students.
At the University of Vermont bookstore, a gown from Oak Hall is on display along with 23 plastic bottles to represent how many are recycled to make the fabric. Bookstore director Jay Menninger said the gowns cost the school about $2 more each, but students weren't charged more. Though his school and others will return the gowns to Oak Hall to be recycled into new fabric, he expects most students will bypass the recycling bins he hopes to set up near the outdoor ceremony.
"After commencement, they're out of here. They don't want to go put something in a box," he said.
Elaine Kiesewetter, a senior at UNH, said she would be more likely to give her gown to a younger friend so they could save money rather than turn it in. She received her gown last month and was pleasantly surprised that it didn't look like it was made from plastic.
"Especially from far away, no one will know," she said.