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New WMSBF Member Greener Grads Rethinks Graduation Gowns

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To become more sustainable, some industries can adapt their day-to-day operations by incorporating environmentally friendly practices and materials.

For Seth Yon and Skip Carier of the newly-launched Greener Grads, a graduation gown reuse service, making their industry more sustainable has meant rethinking their entire product’s life cycle.

“Nobody has ever had a place to bring [gowns] before to have them reused,” said Yon, a graduation industry vet.

Greener Grads will provide schools in West Michigan and nationwide an opportunity to sustainably collect, reuse and repurpose graduation gowns. Gowns collected by Greener Grads will either be cleaned and made available to schools and universities for use at their ceremonies, or put to use as a versatile polyester material for various manufacturing applications.

According to Yon, such a service is not only more cost-effective than purchasing new gowns, but also mitigates the large amounts of waste created by graduation apparel. Since the late 1970s when rental gowns were replaced with lighter, single-use polyester versions, the amount of waste generated by graduation apparel has been staggering. “100 million gowns have been produced since the graduation industry has moved away from the rental model,” said Yon. “In just West Michigan, we have seen 5.5 million grads in that time. That means 5.5 million gowns.”

“It’s a ridiculous number of one-time-use products,” he continued.

Greener Grads’ steam-cleaning process allows current gowns to be cleaned, sanitized, and worn by new students several times before being repurposed—a huge step in preventing the graduation-related waste that Yon has worked to mitigate in the past. After working with a major graduation apparel company for several years, Yon joined with Michigan Grads to produce and sell gowns made of recycled polyester in an effort to curb the environmental impact of the garments and provide them for a lower cost to consumers. However, after graduation ceremonies were over, he still saw students throwing the gowns away. “I saved some water bottles, essentially, but I only did it for one year—because they’re still going to landfill,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

Greener Grads has already found support in the West Michigan community from like-minded universities and schools. Although the company has only recently gone public, several major educational institutions have expressed interest in supplying their students with the re-used gowns.

“It’s a major paradigm shift, because there have always been 2 or 3 companies that have owned the industry,” said Yon.

Currently, Greener Grads has drop off locations at each of the 21 Grand Rapids-area Goodwill stores. Additional 24-hour dropoff sites at partnering locations are planned in the near future.

To contact Greener Grads, or for more information, please click here.

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