Grand Rapids man recycles graduation gowns

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Seth Yon is on a mission to recycle 1 million graduation gowns.

The Grand Rapids businessman is the founder of Greener Grads, a company set up to recover, reuse and repurpose graduation gowns through partnerships with Goodwill Industries and a growing number of universities.

More than 5 million graduation gowns worn by students annually are made mostly of polyester, which can’t biodegrade, Yon told The Grand Rapids Press ( ).

“When considering the manufacturing process, how briefly the gowns are worn, and the environmental impact the chemicals cause if sent to a landfill - it becomes more difficult to justify buying new product as you realize what a big difference one person can make,” Yon said.

Greener Grads will replace Michigan Grads, a business Yon began in the summer of 2012. Yon decided to branch out after working in the graduation gown industry for over 11 years. Michigan Grad was set up to offer gowns made from recycled goods at a discounted price to all graduates, giving them significant savings from traditional gowns. It was his first step in sustainability, which he realized didn’t do enough, so he started Greener Grads, Yon said.

His business plans - which call for collecting and reselling those gowns at a discounted price - has the endorsement of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Sierra Club Green Home and Michigan Green Schools.

The recycled gowns would be sold for $20 to $30 - about half the price of regular gowns, according to Greener Grads.

The Grand Rapids firm also has partnerships with Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University, Aquinas College, Berea College and the University of Louisville - with plans to expand nationally in 2015.

This is the kind of an effort universities should be behind, Kristine Moffett, president of Michigan Green Schools, a nonprofit that encourages environmentally-friendly efforts at schools.

“The option of recycling graduation gowns is a great opportunity for schools to take the lead in getting this large source of material out of our landfills,” Moffett said.

Yon points out that not only are graduation gowns made from acetate and polyester, which don’t easily biodegrade, but the materials are made with dyes that are extremely toxic.

“The type of individual problem-solving that Greener Grads displays is exactly what we need to address the challenges we face as we work collaboratively to ensure diverse waste streams are sustainably managed and utilized,” said Matt Flechter, recycling and composting specialist at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In Grand Rapids, the gowns can be dropped off at all Goodwill of Greater Grand Rapids locations or at any participating colleges where Greener Grad has placed receptacles.

“Greener Grads has a unique program that aligns with Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids sustainability efforts,” explained Jill Wallace, chief marketing and communications officer at Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids.

Goodwill Industries will collect and sort the gowns at no charge for Greener Grads, as part of a wider sustainability effort.

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