PARAMUS, NJ –  When Bergen Community College holds its commencement ceremony this week, graduates won't be wearing traditional black caps and gowns. 

Instead, for the first time ever, students will don eco-friendly attire made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, making Bergen Community College the latest school in the country to nix polyester gowns. 

The graduation garb, which is manufactured by Virginia-based regalia company Oak Hall, is a sustainable alternative to gowns made out of polyester, a petroleum-based fabric that does not biodegrade. 

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Since most graduates keep only the tassel from their hat, the cap and gown are typically tossed into the garbage as soon as the ceremony ends. More than five million gowns wind up in landfills annually, adding to the plastic waste stream, according to information provided by Oak Hall. 

Rachel Lerner Colucci, the school’s dean of student life and conduct, said, “We first learned about these types of gowns from our partners in our college bookstore. When presented with the option to offer our students a sustainable gown made from recycled plastic bottles, we knew this was in line with our commitment to the environment.”

“We believe this sends a message to our entire campus community the importance of our collective role in environmental and sustainability efforts.  When educating tomorrow's leaders, we feel it is critical to include the idea that our everyday decisions make an impact,” she said.

An average of 23 plastic bottles are removed from landfills for each gown made. Nearly 100 million plastic bottles have been diverted from landfills across the country to make the gowns since 2009, according to Oak Hall.  

For each gown purchased, Oak Hall makes a donation to an on-campus sustainability program of the school’s choice. Used gowns can be turned in after graduation to be recycled into new fabric.

In the first year that Oak Hall offered the recycled gown to colleges, about 100 schools purchased then. They are now are worn by graduates at 500 different colleges across the country each year, according to Oak Hall. 

At Bergen Community College’s ceremony on Thursday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, more than 2,000 students will receive associates degrees and certificates.

This year’s graduating class includes:

  • Three Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship winners, which provides up to $40,000 per year for college
  • Seventy-one students with a 4.0 GPA
  • High school students from Bergen County Applied Technology High School and North Arlington High School earning associates degrees
  • Members of the No. 1 ranked Phi Theta Kappa chapter in the world
  • Students who published research in an international journal
  • Study abroad scholarship winners
  • Members of the award-winning student newspaper, The Torch
  • NJ STARS students, Community College Opportunity Grant recipient students and those from dozens of countries and students who will transfer to Ivy League institutions such as Columbia University and other top-tier schools such as the University of California-Berkeley and NJIT.

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis will serve as the keynote speaker and discuss topics ranging from the state’s launch of the tuition-free Community College Opportunity Grant program, of which BCC enrolled nearly 500 students.

Other speakers include: BCC President Michael Redmond, County Executive James Tedesco III and Freeholder Chair Germaine Ortiz.