The UC Berkeley campus has made significant efforts toward sustainability, and the city of Berkeley has a commitment to achieve zero waste by 2020. But the standard cap and gown set is still an expensive ecological waste item. Graduation gowns such as the ones manufactured by UC Berkeley’s choice label Jostens are made of polyester or acetate rather than a natural fiber. Our campus buys the biodegradable option from this corporation, but without more recycling or reuse effort, these make little impact on the overall waste created. This means that one of the largest and most representative events at this campus is one that showcases a disposable and unsustainably manufactured product made in Mexico, only to be thoughtlessly discarded a day or two later. This is not the image that UC Berkeley’s commencement should project.
This event is an important tradition, but UC Berkeley has long been a leader in reforming custom for progressive action. Tradition can be maintained with more sustainable choices than disposable plastic academic regalia. It would be best to take a two-pronged approach to making commencement sustainable and more cost-effective. First, the university should focus efforts to collect caps and gowns for cleaning and reuse or recycling. UC Berkeley does not offer recycling services for these garments, and most of them will end up in the garbage. Donation is possible to the Graduation Gown Lending Project, run through the Educational Opportunity Program for the benefit of low-income students. This program is very worthwhile, and the university should place more emphasis on publicizing and expanding programs for reuse of graduation gowns. The Graduation Gown Lending Project exists because the ceremony of commencement is often prohibitively expensive for some UC Berkeley students. We recognize that there will always be costs associated with commencement, but gowns could be produced in a way that is both cost-effective and at least ecologically neutral.
Second, they should offer gowns made of sustainable materials such as postconsumer plastics or renewable fibers. Currently, the Cal Student Store sells Jostens Elements Collection, which is defined as its biodegradable line, certified as a biobased product by the USDA that is 85.5 percent degradable under controlled conditions. The standards for the term “biodegradable,” however, are not governed by any strict scientific qualifications and are often used as a marketing term that ultimately means nothing. These measures represent a halfway point toward a sustainable commencement, and our university can do better. A more verifiably sustainable cap and gown is within reach, and we recommend the university look to companies such as Greener Grads in Michigan, or GreenWeaver in Virginia for better examples of regalia sets made from 100 percent recycled materials.
Like a framed diploma, our steps toward reducing waste and increasing sustainability must not be just for show. They need to stand for something measurable.