“Green” Gowns in a Sea of Columbia Blue

May 16, 2014
Making a green graduation gown.

When students assemble this year for Commencement, their gowns will look blue but half of them will be green, thanks to material made from recycled plastic bottles. The bottles-to-gowns program is one of a number of steps taken by the University to reduce its environmental footprint and raise awareness of the importance of conserving natural resources. While this year the program is limited to half of the gowns for those receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees, next year all of the gowns for these two groups are expected to be made from recycled material.

“The program helps to connect the dots between the significance of an individual throwing a bottle in the right place and the ability to create sustainable products like the gowns,” said Jessica Prata, assistant vice president of Environmental Stewardship. “Our hope is that it helps to make people aware of the importance of their decisions.”

The University recently launched three new pilot sustainability programs. The first aims to lower the amount of paper used by the Mailman School of Public Health and Facilities and Operations, by considering changes in behavior, technology and campus protocols, such as requiring double-sided printing or shifting to virtual meetings. Another will examine the energy use of a select group of graduate students in University housing. The idea is to implement energy-saving measures every other month, then count any savings on students’ utilities bills. Students will see over time how modest measures can save energy and money.

The third program analyzes recycling at two residence halls, East Campus and Carman Hall, where the University has conducted a waste audit. A representative sample of the trash bags were opened to see how much should have been recycled. In one dorm, 70 percent of the items found in the trash should have been diverted to recycling. “We clearly have a lot of opportunity to educate students and improve this diversion rate,” said Prata. “We will use the audit data as a baseline from which to measure progress.”

As part of this effort, Columbia will standardize bins to help students more easily identify where to put their recyclables. “We want recycling to become second nature,” said Scott Wright, vice president of Campus Services.

The Green Fund, which draws upon a $25,000 grant from Columbia Dining, Housing and University Event Management to sponsor students’ sustainability ideas, has a number of projects scheduled for the 2014- 15 academic year. One project involves placing meters in select student housing to measure water flow. In another, students will conduct a series of waste audits, starting at the School of International and Public Affairs. The group will identify the most common recyclable items found in the trash and create a marketing campaign to educate Columbians about their proper disposal.

“It’s important that we support the University’s sustainability initiatives however we can, whether it’s within our own operations or in working with our vendors,” said Honey Fishman, executive director of Contract Services, who worked with the company that provides Columbia’s academic regalia to dress this year’s graduates in recycled gowns.

In addition to the sustainable gowns, a group of Columbia students called EcoReps will help gather empty plastic bottles immediately after Commencement. Extra recycling containers will be scattered across campus, and signs will be posted encouraging attendees to “recycle a bottle, dress a grad.”

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” noted Prata, saying that over time our goal is to “begin to see a cultural shift where sustainability is a principle embedded in the way we do business throughout Columbia’s campuses.”

—Story by Gary Shapiro
—Illustration by Nicoletta Barolini