Graduation gowns promote recycling


CW/ Joe Will Field

Ben Stansell, Assistant Sports Editor

Next weekend, 5,781 undergraduate and master’s students will walk across the stage in Coleman Coliseum at the University of Alabama commencement ceremonies. They’ll be receiving their college diplomas, a certification for years of studying and hard work, but they’ll also be saving a combined 132,963 plastic bottles from being buried in the ground.

The black caps and gowns worn by each and every graduate are composed of 100% recycled plastic, salvaged from bottles that were dumped into landfills across the eastern coast of the U.S.

The GreenWeaver cap and gown sets are produced by the Virginia-based regalia company Oak Hall. The idea for sustainable caps and gowns was first conceived by the company’s president Joe D’Angelo in 2009 at a University of Washington dining hall.

“Joe and our vice president, Donna Hodges, were going over how the presentation went, and Joe looked down and saw where they were using bamboo utensils in an effort to get away from plastic utensil,” said Lee Beekman, sales and marketing manager at Oak Hall. “All of the sudden, the wheels started turning.”

The original plan was to make the caps and gowns out of bamboo, but after preliminary testing didn’t yield positive results, the focus shifted to utilizing post-consumer plastic. Oak Hall partnered with Unifi, a company that specializes in turning plastic bottles into recycled polyester fabric, to create the GreenWeaver line of caps and gowns. Once Unifi collects the plastic bottles, they feed them into a machine that Beekman compared to a wood chipper to turn the plastic into usable fibers.

It takes an average of 23 plastic bottles to make each cap and gown set, so for every 100 students that wear the GreenWeaver gown, 2,300 bottles are saved.

In the first year that Oak Hall offered the recycled gown to colleges, a little under 100 schools purchased them. Now, the GreenWeaver gowns are worn by students during commencement at 500 different colleges across the U.S. Not only has the eco-friendly product helped prevent waste, it has also been a boom for Oak Hall.

“The sustainable approach really kind of brought a second wave of productivity to our company and put us on the forefront of doing this and being part of a bigger picture, which we’ve really enjoyed,” Beekman said.

The UA Supply Store first started offering the GreenWeaver caps and gowns in 2010.

“We like using the GreenWeaver [caps and gowns] because environmentally it is a good thing,” said David Cowdery, the associate director of the Supe Store. “Lately, there’d been so much talk about how much plastic bottles end up in the ocean and landfills, so I think as we grow more awareness, I think the students will recognize that it’s neat that we’re doing that instead of a regular cap and gown.”

Beekman mentioned that Oak Hall has a program for students to turn in their caps and gowns after graduation for them to be recycled once more. However, Oak Hall is still trying to develop this program, and it is not currently present on Alabama’s campus.

Since the caps and gowns are made from plastic, students are warned not to iron them or expose them to any intense heat. Instead, students are advised to hang the gowns in the bathroom during a warm shower to let the steam work out any wrinkles.

Even though the Supe Store has been selling GreenWeaver caps and gowns since 2010, Cowdery still doesn’t think most students know what they’re made of. Graduating senior Sophia Warner was unaware that they were composed of recycled plastic, but is proud to see the University making sustainability a priority.

“I had no clue,” said Warner, an international studies major. “This is great news though. We should keep doing this from now on and should try to invest in other ways that we can be more sustainable as a campus.”