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Not-so-biodegradable graduation gowns

Many high school and college graduates get an "A" for social consciousness, having opted to wear "green" caps and gowns as they accept their diplomas this month. But what they're really getting is a postgraduate course in greenwashing, and the cynical ways corporations will exploit their desire to protect the environment.

Local high schools, as well as prestigious universities such as UC Berkeley and Yale, are opting for environmentally friendly graduation garb made from recycled plastics or biodegradable materials. "If it ends up in the trash, at least we know we won't hurt the environment," Animo Venice Charter High School salutatorian Monica Bautista told The Times, no doubt speaking for many of the idealistic young graduates who chose to pay a little more this year for "biodegradable" gowns made by Minnesota-based Jostens Inc.

But in fact, if Bautista's gown ends up in the trash, it could remain intact in a landfill for decades and possibly centuries, just like any other disposable item.

Many plastics are marketed as "biodegradable," but it's a highly misleading term — so much so that state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D- Concord) has introduced a bill forbidding plastics manufacturers from using it in California. That's because there is no technical scientific standard to define it, and the conditions under which so-called biodegradable items break down vary greatly. Often, they will decompose under natural conditions but not in landfills, which are sealed off from moisture and oxygen and thus serve as time capsules for trash. Jostens, which uses all the right eco-buzzwords on its website promoting its Elements line of green graduation regalia (the acetate fabric is made from "natural wood sourced exclusively from renewable managed forests"), says its gowns decompose in soil in less than a year. But it isn't very likely that graduates will bury their gowns in the backyard after use; they're far more likely to end up in a landfill. Environmental benefit: zero.

In the old days — like, say, the 1990s — caps and gowns were typically recycled. That is, they were usually rented to graduates, then returned and laundered for reuse the following year. Apparently, many of today's graduates would rather keep their gowns longer, or they simply don't want the inconvenience of returning them. Although there is certainly an environmental cost for laundering and transporting a rental gown, it probably isn't as great as the cost of manufacturing gowns that are used once and then thrown away, even if they're made from recycled plastic bottles, as some companies are now doing.

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