After a lonely, difficult slog taking roughly one class per semester online for six years, I recently completed work toward a master's degree in library and information science at San Jose State University.
I'm not normally one for pomp and circumstance, but I'm proud of this academic achievement. So I made the decision to fly back to San Jose in May to take part in graduation ceremonies in front of my family.
But when I looked into renting a cap and gown for the event, I was disappointed to find out that San Jose State does not offer any such option. I was instead directed to the Herff Jones website, where I discovered that the cap, gown, hood, and tassel I was required to wear would cost almost $150 by the time everything was shipped to me. This seemed like a lot to pay for garb I would wear one time for a couple of hours.
And where will this one-use graduation regalia end up? In the trash, along with most of the caps and gowns seen on stages across the country this spring. By one estimate, more than 100 million polyester gowns have been added to the waste stream in the last 30 years.
Some gown manufacturers sell "biodegradable" gowns made from recycled plastic bottles, but this is little more than a PR stunt; without a way to recycle the gowns, the final destination for these materials is ultimately still the landfill.
If it sounds like there is a business opportunity here for someone wanting to start an eco-friendly graduation regalia recycling and rental business, there is--but only if schools are willing to participate on the rental side of the business.
When I called Seth Yon, former CEO of the now-defunct company Greener Grads, he said he was very successful at getting schools to participate in cap and gown recovery programs, but the schools dragged their feet when it came to implementing the rental piece.
"They weren't real interested in the rental side and just kept selling new regalia," Yon said. "Without a rental component, you can recover all the used caps and gowns in the world, and it just doesn't matter."
Yon should know because he still has a warehouse full of used caps and gowns that he can't bring himself to take to a landfill. All the regalia has been cleaned and is ready to be reused, but he can't find schools willing to take the materials.
It's disappointing that a major university system in an environmentally conscious state like California seems content to perpetuate a business model that is plainly bad for the environment, but it's easy to see how this happens. Gown manufacturers and university bookstores make money on the sales of new graduation regalia, and disgruntled students like me graduate and move on to other things.
Jonathan Dale lives in San Diego, where he is working as an information and communications consultant.
Editorial on 05/02/2019