Trash Treasures Greener Grads: A National Sustainability Initiative Aimed at Keeping Graduation Gowns Out of Landfills

With a goal to keep 1 million gowns out of landfills and available for new graduates by the end of December 2015, Greener Grads is a unique program that also allows new graduates to reduce their cost associated with purchasing new gowns for their 90-minute ceremony.

Gary A. Bilbro


Did you know more than 5 million graduation gowns are worn at high school and college graduation ceremonies every year? In order to manufacture these gowns it takes 3.2 million gallons of oil, which is equivalent to 124.8 million plastic water bottles or over 5 million tons of waste. For many years graduation gowns were made of the more environmentally friendly material cotton however, over the past 25 years the scholastic services industry has decided to switch to a polyester-based material. The problem with polyester gowns is that they are constructed out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a substance that does not fully decompose or biodegrade.


A New Solution

The annual disposing of graduations gowns has been and will continue to be detrimental to our environment. As a former employee of a graduation industry giant with 11 years of experience, Seth Yon, founder of Greener Grads, became aware of the devastating effects that can occur when graduation gowns are placed into our landfills. He was attending a graduation in Spring 2013 and as he was leaving, he noticed a large number of the graduates were taking off their gowns and throwing them into trash bins. It is this awareness that inspired Yon to found Greener Grads, a national sustainability initiative. On April 22, 2014 Greener Grads was officially launched with a mission in mind: to become an environmentally-conscience and affordable leader in the graduation industry. Currently, he has locations in multiple states across the country mainly in the Midwest.


Through the Greener Grads re-use, repurpose and recycling program, Yon has generated not only a sustainable process for diverting graduation gowns from our landfills, but he has also created a business that allows new graduates to reduce their cost associated with purchasing new gowns for their 90-minute ceremony. Yon states, “An ever-growing number of our young graduates are skipping their graduation due to the cost of purchasing a graduation gown. This is a ceremony that gives each graduate a sense of pride in their accomplishments, and they are missing out due to the cost.”


Used gowns can be donated to Greener Grads and then subsequently rented out to future graduates, specifically high school and college students, in turn saving them and their family money. Once the graduates have completed their ceremony, they return their gowns to Greener Grads, so the company can clean and prepare them for the next rental. This process not only reduces the number of gowns ending up in our landfills, but it also reduces the need for new gowns to be manufactured, thus reducing the amount of oil required to make them. “The response over the past year has been overwhelming. At first, we were not sure how people would react to this service, but currently we have partnerships in 20 states throughout the nation. We have received a great deal of positive support from numerous student groups, high schools, universities and other sustainability organizations such as Goodwill Industries,” says Yon.


The Ultimate Goal

Goodwill Industries locations serve as donation hubs for graduates to drop off their used gowns for the Greener Grads recycling program. Nick Carlson, VP of Donated Goods Operations at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, a primary partner of Greener Grads says, “Greener Grads has a unique program and product that aligns with Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids’ sustainability efforts. Just as Goodwill maximizes its donations for the betterment of those we serve, Greener Grads is focused on maximizing the sustainability of graduation apparel, while keeping costs at a minimum for the consumer.  It is a win-win for all involved.”


Yon says his goal is to be able to keep 1 million gowns out of landfills and available for new graduates by the end of December 2015. With the start Greener Grads has experienced in the past year, Yon believes this goal can become a reality. “Over the past eight months we have been able to collect hundreds of thousands of gowns through our sustainability efforts. This could not have been done without our partners. I’m thankful for the partnerships that have been established throughout 2014 and am excited for what 2015 holds. If we are able to achieve our goal and recycle one million gowns by the end of 2015 that will save 588,235 gallons of oil from being used to produce more. It’s a big task to take on, but I’m confident Greener Grads can accomplish it.”


Gary A. Bilbro is a Board Member for the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) and President of SMART Recycling of SC, LLC  and NewGreen Consulting, LLC.  He has successfully promoted the recycling and reuse of materials from C&D to organics and food waste through the southeast US. Gary can be reached at


For more information about GreenerGrads, contact Seth Yon at or visit