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Green graduations at Washington area universities

When George Washington University’s Class of 2012 marched across the Mall to accept its degrees Sunday morning, the nation’s back yard was transformed into an eco-fashion runway.

Sure, the men wore dress shirts and slacks while the women donned colorful spring dresses and shoes that wouldn’t sink in soft soil. But on top of these outfits, each GWU student sported the newest trend: gowns made from plastic bottles.

More than 5,000 graduates at GWU joined hundreds of thousands of other students across the country in forgoing traditional polyester gowns for versions made entirely from bits of melted plastic.

“The ‘green’ gowns look and feel the same, and the students were really excited,” said Robert Blake, the manager of the GWU bookstore and a member of the university’s regalia committee. “For us, this was really a no-brainer.”

The eco-friendly fashion statement is part of a larger effort by colleges and universities to reduce the carbon footprint of commencement ceremonies. With paper graduation announcements and diplomas, and plastic cutlery and tableware for non-sustainably grown meals and snacks, graduation day has been an eco-warrior’s nightmare.

That began to change several years ago. Unity College in Maine, for instance, sends online invitations, while Pace University in New York prints programs on recycled paper with soy ink. Boston University uses compostable tableware. New York’s New School decorates with local, seasonal flowers. Southwestern University in Texas serves organic refreshments. College of the Atlantic in Maine, which has never used caps or gowns, has had zero-waste graduations since 2005.

And then there are GWU’s plasti-gowns, each spun from 29 post-consumer bottles. In all, about 145,000 bottles that might otherwise have ended up in landfills hung from the shoulders of the graduates.

In addition to GWU, several other nearby schools, including Catholic University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, used graduation gowns made of plastic bottles (with such names as “Repreve” and “GreenWeaver”). Georgetown University’s “Elements” line of gowns is made of tree fibers and certified by the Department of Agriculture as a “bio-based” product.

Herff Jones, the company that sells GWU’s gowns, reported that 140 U.S. schools placed orders for the gowns this year. Virginia-based Oak Hall Cap & Gown reported orders from more than 100 schools.

It is important to note that these gowns are nothing like the clingy, colorful, plastic ponchos donned by weathermen reporting from the eye of a hurricane. (You know that’s what you’re picturing.)

The “green” gowns look and feel just like the ones worn by previous generations because — fun fact — the gowns of yore were made from the same material that is used to make plastic soda and water bottles. But instead of using virgin polyester, the gowns are made from bottles that have been crushed or melted down into pellets and then spun into polyester yarn. The yarn is knit into fabric, dyed and sewn into any type of clothing, from graduation garb to ball gowns.

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