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KCAD Collaborates with West Michigan Entrepreneur to Help Grads Go Green

Posted June 13, 2014 in Public

The graduation gown is a symbol of extraordinary dedication, perseverance, and accomplishment. Why then, do the majority of the on average 5 million new gowns purchased annually end up in the trash?

West Michigan native Seth Yon knows the answer better than most. He spent 11 years working with a large graduation company and saw firsthand how exploitative the industry could be, both of consumers and the environment. So Yon left his job and founded Greener Grads, an organization dedicated to recovering, repurposing, and reusing graduation gowns.

Greener Grads’ initial efforts have been focused on local impact, and KCAD was quick to step up and become one of the organization’s first collaborators. After catching wind of Wege Prize, a collaboration between KCAD and the Wege Foundation that challenged college students to work across disciplines to solve a large-scale, socially complex “wicked” problem, Yon saw an opportunity to create shared value.

“I loved the idea [of Wege Prize] because I thought the issue that Greener Grads was trying to tackle was also a wicked problem,” said Yon. “So much of what Greener Grads has done so far has been focused on Grand Rapids and West Michigan, so I couldn’t’ think of a better way to get started than to work with an institution like KCAD that has a sustainable vision and is located right downtown.”

Following KCAD’s May 10 commencement ceremony, stations were set up across campus for newly-minted grads to upcycle their gowns, and the donations came in droves. Just ten days later, graduates from River Valley Academy, an alternative high school within Rockford Public Schools, reused the KCAD gowns, and the Greener Grads movement was officially underway.

greener grads collection binsCollection bins invited students to make the right choice with their used graduation gowns (image courtesy of Greener Grads)

“Seth has a strong vision and he knows how important building a core of support is to making that vision a reality,” said KCAD professor and Chief Sustainability Office Gayle DeBryun. “The mission of Greener Grads aligns perfectly with our institutional mission to pursue innovation in sustainable thinking and practice, and we couldn’t be prouder to help plant the seeds of a movement that’s going to make a substantial and immediate impact.”

KCAD's Gayle Debryun (right) with the first KCAD graduate to donate a gown to Greener Grads (image courtesy of Greener Grads)

Around 25 years ago, the graduation industry transitioned from a rental-based model that utilized cotton gowns to a purchase-based model that utilized polyester gowns that were cheaper and easier to produce. The shift has created a compound problem. People who have no further use for the gowns they’ve purchased simply throw them away without realizing that the polyester is made from PET, the same chemical compound used to make plastic water bottles, and does not biodegrade.

In addition to KCAD, Greener Grads is currently working locally with Aquinas College, Rockford High School, Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids, Recycle Kent, Michigan Green Schools, and a number of other organization’s to facilitate the collection process. Yon hopes to strengthen the non-profits’s network in the coming months, and already has expanded his collection efforts to seven states, with numbers eight and nine in the works.

Greener Grads’ focus right now remains on collecting gowns purchased for the 2014 graduation season in the hopes that they can be reused by 2015 graduates across the country, but ultimately, Yon is looking at the bigger picture.

“I can see value in that polyester once you’re done using it as a graduation gown, so we’re having those talks now about where the material can go next,” he said. “I’m convinced that this material could and should stay out of the landfill forever.”

To learn more about Greener Grads, go to greenergrads.org, or like the organization on Facebook.