The Three R's: How recycling initiatives are greening Grand Rapids

As the state of Michigan tries to raise its recycling rates to catch up with the national average, Grand Rapids is greening with some growing programs and one brand-new initiative. Stephanie Doublestein gets the scoop on a new program targeting graduates and finds out what we could be doing better here in West Michigan.
When it comes to old-fashioned education, the "three R's" used to be reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Then the environmental movement taught us about reducing, reusing, and recycling. And now Seth Yon, who is launching the Greener Grads initiative, wants to focus on recovering, repurposing, and reusing -- graduation gowns, that is.
Seth YonYon, a former gown industry employee with 12 years of experience, symbolically launched the new initiative on Earth Day. But it's what will happen to the thousands of graduation gowns students around the city – and the country – will wear in the coming weeks that matters to him.
In launching Greener Grads, a West Michigan-based initiative that's already spreading nationally, Yon is seeking to use his industry insider perspective to transform a little-questioned cultural practice. He says the industry made a fundamental shift in the 80s from reusable cotton gowns to one-time-use polyester gowns, and those gowns just pile up in landfills -- at a rate of 5 million gowns per year -- after a single, 90-minute use. After attending a textile recovery conference in East Lansing in late 2013, he found himself with questions.
"What if these gowns were recovered? Reused every year?" asks Yon. Greener Grads will do just that, with a goal of reducing mass production of polyester by recovering, repurposing, and reusing gowns. And this spring, Aquinas College, Kendall College of Art and Design, Berea College, and the University of Louisville (both in Kentucky) will begin reclaiming gowns with Greener Grads bins at graduation ceremonies. The gowns will be bar-coded, tracked, sorted, and hopefully used about a dozen more times before being upcycled into another product.
Yon says Greener Grads has received "overwhelming support" from the West Michigan community as it planned its launch, and a key supporter in the venture is Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids. With a mission of "changing lives and communities through the power of work," Goodwill Industries seemed a natural partner for Yon's venture.
"We've entered into an agreement to do a pilot to help with collections," says Nick Carlson, director of environmental sustainability at Goodwill Industries. This means local residents who have old high school or college gowns hanging in the back of their closets can drop off gowns to a Goodwill store in the greater Grand Rapids region, and Goodwill will make sure the gown gets to a Greener Grads program.
Goodwill Industries, which sells over six million pounds of textiles per year into export markets and another six million pounds of other materials (computers, televisions, belts, purses, toys), has reduced its total waste volume by 45 percent since 2008 while simultaneously growing its donations by 33 percent. Using the revenue from selling donated goods at its retail stores, Goodwill then funds workforce development programs, which empower veterans, former prisoners, and at-risk youth to become productive, tax-paying citizens.

"We see a lot of value in the Greener Grads program," says Carlson, and he's not the only local supporter. The city of Grand Rapids lends its official support as well, with Mayor Heartwell affirming that "the concept aligns directly with the city's sustainability initiative" and noting that it balances three things the city values as well: financial, social, and environmental concerns.
Getting greener is something that Heartwell has championed in Grand Rapids throughout his tenure. Three years ago, the city launched, which encourages Grand Rapids residents to participate in the city's free curbside recycling program by offering rewards at area businesses.
Jasmine Olsen, project coordinator for the myGRcitypoints program, says the program currently has over 12,000 registered users, which is about 25 percent of the recycling households in the city. In the three years since the program launched – and in combination with the introduction of single-stream recycling – Olsen says it has increased recycling by approximately 80 percent and reduced refuse by 13 percent. (Statewide, Michigan's recycling rate is estimated to be 14.5 percent, a number Governor Snyder has recently announced he aims to double.)
Olsen says what's good for the environment has also been good for the economy. "What started as a recycling incentive program also was a tool for economic growth," she says. "We work with Local First and local businesses to provide the rewards, to keep the dollars local and promote local economic growth in the community."
As Kendall College of Art and Design's Chief Sustainability Officer, Gayle DeBruyn says it's these kinds of small, thoughtful efforts that make a difference, and it's one reason KCAD supports the Greener Grads program.
"As a tiny little college graduating 230 students, we think the drop in the bucket matters," she says. "An incremental shift makes a difference over time."
DeBruyn, who is also an assistant professor and department chair at KCAD, is passionate about systems thinking when it comes to sustainability. "As designers and fine artists entering careers, they are going to influence material choices in a big way," she says. "Their impact on the environment begins with commencement. So we would like to help students recognize that the choices they're making about materials and how we use them are important and should be considered."
She's seen a shift across the city in the last several years, citing the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum as an excellent resource for organizations looking to green their practices and events -- and rattling off TEDxGrandRapids, Komen Race for the Cure, Gazelle Girl, the Mayor's River Clean-Up, and ArtPrize as examples of local events that have sought to reduce their environmental impact over the last few years.
Amelea Pegman, ArtPrize director of community engagement, says WMSBF just hosted a Greening ArtPrize Charrette, which provided the event, now heading into its sixth year, with an opportunity to take a look at the social and environmental responsibilities ArtPrize needs to address. 

"It's important for us when we talk about environmental responsibility and making ArtPrize more sustainable that we look at it through a realistic and authentic lens," says Pegman. In fact, she credits DeBruyn's leadership around sustainability when the two first worked on TEDxGrandRapids with setting the bar for local organizations who want to produce carbon-neutral, environmentally responsible events. 

As the ArtPrize team sets some short-term and long-term goals around event sustainability, recycling, transportation, and carbon reuse, Pegman says they're lucky to rely on a strong West Michigan sustainability movement, and she knows there will be challenges going forward. "Number one for us is understanding a clear metric around impact: finding assessment tools that can help us accurately understand both how ArtPrize affects the environment as well as identify the simple and tangible steps we can take to reduce waste and be more responsible." 

Pegman believes, though, that it will be worth it: "It's a healthy challenge: how do we vision long-term for a downtown that already has this kind of infrastructure built into it? It feels like we're in a unique position to highlight the importance of sustainability and help people learn about best practices. And it's pretty clear that it's a journey we're just starting."
As Grand Rapids strives to get greener, other challenges remain. What are they? Olsen says the challenge is awareness, about letting people know that the myGRcitypoints program is free, easy, and offers great rewards. According to Yon, the challenges are logistical; with 5.5 million grads each year (and growing), his initiative will need to use this spring's launch locally to test systems and sorting before it grows on the national level. And DeBruyn says it's about more than just recycling.
"Recycling is good, but using less is better," she says. "Set printers to automatically double-side print. Get yourself off all those junk mail lists. Try paperless billing, taking the bus, riding your bike. Use things all the way up, buy with a long-term vision on value and lifespan, and stop putting produce in plastic bags that you'll put in more plastic bags at the grocery store. Be more thoughtful. Be a conscious consumer."
And if you have an old polyester graduation gown hanging in the back of your closet, let Greener Grads take it off your hands this spring.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird

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