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Greening graduation

Michelle Fuhrman | Sunday, March 25, 2012

For the freshmen and sophomores thinking, “I can’t wait for spring break next year!” or the juniors that can’t wait to live it up as seniors in the fall, believe me when I tell you that it’s just around the corner.

I’ll be honest; I’ve been somewhat in denial that I will be leaving my home under the dome. The reality of being awarded my diploma and being sent out into the real world slapped me in the face Wednesday when I attended the Graduation Fair. However, what got me excited and made me know I was leaving Notre Dame in a good place was seeing all the sustainability initiatives on display from the university and their vendors.

To preface this, I recently came across an article that highlighted Michigan Tech for using caps and gowns made from recycled water bottles. I thought this was a novel idea, but that got me wondering about Notre Dame’s graduation set-up.

Clearly, not wanting to be outdone by a Michigan school, it inspired me to ask Donna Hodges, vice president of Oak Hall Cap and Gown, if her company had similar sustainable practices in place. She told me the gown I had just acquired is made of about 23 plastic water bottles that were extracted from landfills. Point Irish! Hearing this eased my competitive knee-jerk reaction at least for a moment.

“Water bottles to gowns – how can that happen?” you may be asking yourself. Once the used bottles are collected, they are broken down in a process that forms fibers that are woven together to create fabric. For Oak Hill Cap and Gown, this process occurs entirely within the United States and creates domestic jobs. One Notre Dame graduation ceremony takes three full tractor-trailers of water bottles from landfills. The best part is that the recycling continues even after you wear it on graduation day. Post-ceremony there will be bins placed on campus for seniors to recycle their gowns, where they will be remade into furniture and carpet. Touchdown Irish!

Next, I went to order my announcements and was thrilled to learn that Balfour, the company who prints the announcements, uses 50 percent recycled post-consumer cards and envelopes and 100 percent recycled materials for all of their packing supplies. Chris Barr, the representative from Balfour, told me all about how 10 years ago the quality of fine recycled material was not able to withstand the 30,000 pounds of pressure that is required to press the Notre Dame seal on to the paper. Due to better technology and knowledge, next year the company will be making announcements from 100 percent recycled fine paper,” Chris Barr, a Balfour representative, said.

Class rings are another area where Balfour exhibits expertise in social responsibility by becoming the first class ring manufacturer to endorse No Dirty Gold’s “Golden Rules.” This policy encourages the mining industry to extract and manufacture gold under higher social, human rights and environmental standards. These standards include responsible disposal of toxic wastes, safe mining practices and promoting social and environmental justice. Balfour also has a “No Dirty Diamond” Policy, and ensures that their diamonds come from conflict-free sources.

As I walked away from the counter carrying my 23 recycled water bottle equivalent gown in a reusable shopping bag provided by the Notre Dame bookstore, I thought to myself Notre Dame if I have to graduate, at least I am doing it in a green way. It is not easy to do the background work to ensure that suppliers and vendors use sustainable practices, and I commend the university’s efforts for ensuring that our school is associated with companies that have high social and environmental standards. Even though I’m experiencing a mix of emotions as the big day comes near (only 8 weeks away!), I am proud to go to a university that lets me make a green choice. Maybe this whole graduation thing won’t be so bad after all.

Have a question about the environment or how to go green in your personal life? Ask the GreenMan! Seriously. The GreenMan will be here every other week to answer your eco-related questions: email [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.