Last year, the Commencement Office partnered with Zero Waste and the University Bookstore to pilot a gown recycling program. Gown collection boxes were present at both the Spring 2018 and Fall 2018 commencement ceremonies.

More than 5,000 graduates participated in the ceremonies, but the program collected a total of two gowns.

According to Commencement Program Coordinator Jacob Scott, the recycling program works with campus organizations to provide free regalia for students upon request. However, low participation has left the program in flux.

“Depending on how many gowns are collected this year, we will pay for dry cleaning and provide the gowns to [Cal Poly] Cares or Student Academic Services,” Scott wrote in an email to Mustang News. “The number of gowns we receive will help shape the direction of the program.”

The program could help financially insecure students participate in commencement ceremonies. This year, a gown, cap and tassel cost Cal Poly graduates $43.50. Regalia is required for all students who want to be participate in commencement. A sash costs students an additional $39.

According to the National Center For Education Statistics, approximately 3.6 million high schoolers and 3.9 million college students will graduate or receive degrees in the United States this academic year. Millions of these students will participate in commencement ceremonies and wear regalia. After the festivities, gowns will be stored as keepsakes, reused or disposed of.

The environment could also benefit from the gown recycling program. According to Earth911, more than five million graduation gowns end up in landfills every year.

Many graduation gowns are made out of polyester, including those worn at Cal Poly. Polyester is a petroleum-based, non-biodegradable fiber. It is cheap to produce and wrinkle-resistant, making it a popular fabric option.

From 2010-2017, Cal Poly used gowns from regalia company Oak Hall. The university used the company’s Greenweaver caps and gowns, which use polyester made from 100 percent post-consumer plastic bottles.

In Spring 2018, however, Cal Poly switched to Herff Jones for graduation products. Herff Jones also offers a recycled polyester gown option, but Cal Poly uses the company’s standard caps and gowns made from traditional polyester.

Cal Poly University Store Director Amie Mellinger said there is also an option through Herff Jones that lets students rent instead of purchase gowns. The option is $15 cheaper than the current price and would allow gowns to be reused. However, if Cal Poly used this service, students would not be given the option to keep their regalia.

Cal Poly’s Zero Waste Coordinator Anastasia Nicole said reusing gowns is more beneficial than buying gowns made from recycled material, but reusing recycled material is best. Nicole said she thinks the recycling program needs to be better advertised so students know it is an option.

“I think if we have a cap and gown recycling program, we have to make everyone aware of it so they do use it, or else they will still be single-use,” Nicole said. “Dropping off gowns needs to be easy. Generally students won’t do it if it’s not easy.”

Scott wrote that information about the gown recycling program is included in commencement emails sent to students before graduation. Manufacturing engineering senior Tanner Salvador is graduating this spring, but said he did not know about the program or see any information about it.

Salvador said he plans to save his cap, which he wants to decorate, but will only keep his gown until he runs out of storage space or finds someone to give it to. He said he is interested in participating in the recycling program but does not want to give up his gown too quickly.

“I would maybe wait until at least the week after,” Salvador said. “That day it’s still pretty nostalgic to just toss it away. At commencement, people want to hold onto them for at least a couple weeks, for late senior photos and family photos, and they’re probably rushing somewhere.”

Salvador is leaving San Luis Obispo the day after graduation and does not know when he will be back to donate his gown to the program.

Psychology senior Winston Chang learned about the gown recycling program while working near Academic Services. He is borrowing a gown for Spring Commencement.

“I don’t want to pay for something to wear it just once, put it in my closet and then probably throw it away in like 12 years,” Chang said.

How to donate your gown

Gown collection boxes will be set up in each general parking lot and around Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Student volunteers will be at each box to explain the program and take donations.  

The Commencement Office accepts caps and gowns for the program year-round. The office is located in building 81 and has normal business hours during summer.

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