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Elon debuts Commencement gowns made from recycled plastic bottles

They look and feel the same as the caps and gowns used in previous ceremonies, but when candidates for Elon University’s Master of Education participate in their Aug. 20, 2011, Commencement exercises, as part of the university’s sustainability commitment, their regalia contained fabric made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.

An average of 23 plastic bottles are used to make each robe.

The university is introducing a new line of Commencement apparel. All future ceremonies for both undergraduate and graduate students will use the earth-friendly robes, which will remain the same maroon color for those earning their bachelor degrees.

“We believe this change has a good educational message for our students and their families,” said Gerald Whittington, Elon’s senior vice president for business, finance and technology. “The more we implement this sort of sustainable practice, the lower the ultimate cost will be, and the greater the benefit to our planet.”

Nadine Stone G'11 is in the first class of Elon University students to wear Commencement gowns made of 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.

Manufactured by Virginia-based Oak Hall Cap & Gown, it takes about 23 plastic bottles to produce each gown. Oak Hall’s “GreenWeaver” line first launched in 2009 and is growing in popularity among universities committed to sustainable practices. The company notes on its website that with 60 million plastic bottles going into landfills every day, the gowns offer universities “a chance to turn trash into keepsakes.”

To make the robes, recycled plastic bottles are processed to remove impurities such as labels and caps. Bottles are then “chopped” in fragments, which are melted and solidified into pellets. Those pellets are melted yet again and extruded into filament yarn. The yarn is woven, dyed and finished.

The gown uses a “tag less” size label printed with soy ink and the cap contains recycled cardboard. The only parts of regalia not currently made from recycled materials are the zipper and the tack that holds the cap button in place.

“It’s outstanding,” said Nadine Stone G’11, a mathematics teacher at Williams High School in Burlington, N.C. “As I studied here, I spent time in Costa Rica, where the whole country is involved in the recycling process. It’s great that we’re getting on board with recycling as a country here, and that Elon is setting an example. The more we recycle, the better it is for everyone.”

According to Oak Hall, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by nearly 55 percent in manufacturing the gown fabric from recycled plastic rather than virgin polyester, and petroleum use is cut by 52 percent through thermal recycled energy.

“Keeping that amount of material out of landfills is a good thing,” said Elaine Durr, Elon’s director of sustainability. “Just think. You’re wearing 23 bottles instead of having them go to the landfill!

“These gowns certainly show our commitment to utilizing sustainable products and sustainable purchasing – and besides the educational information that will accompany each gown our students will not notice a difference.”

Eric Townsend,
8/20/2011 8:20 PM