Election Day has come and gone, and we finally have a president-elect. And even if some counting may remain, it may be time to consider getting rid of at least one reminder of this year’s embattled process: campaign signs.
Sure, you could trash them, but you could also go the more environmentally friendly route by trying to recycle them. After all, with so many signs produced every election season, keeping as many of them as possible out of landfills is a good way to help lighten the environmental load in our area.
The problem is: Many of them can’t just go into your regular curbside recycling bin.
“When they used to be just cardboard, that was easy,” says Veronica Harris, recycling manager for Montgomery County. “As plastic has gotten cheaper and cheaper, it’s just more plastic signs. Plastic is where we get into some trouble.”
So how can you recycle — or even reuse — this election’s campaign signs? Here is what you need to know.
What are campaign signs made of?
Campaign signs, Harris says, are usually made of materials including cardboard or paper, plastic film, corrugated plastic (or “Coroplast,” as one brand calls it), and metal. If you’ve got cardboard or paper signs, you’re in luck — those can go right into your curbside recycling bin. Everything else is a little more complicated, and shouldn’t be mixed in with your usual household recycling.
If your sign is a flimsy, plastic bag-type material stretched between mounting posts, that’s plastic film. If you have a stiff, cardboard-like material made from plastic, that’s corrugated plastic. Usually, those signs are attached to a metal (typically steel) stand to help display them on your lawn. Putting any of those materials in your curbside bin will result in what is known as a “contamination” down the line.
“It’s important for us to keep contaminants and trash out of the recycling bin,” says Kyle Lewis, Philadelphia’s recycling director. “It’s what keeps recycling viable.”
Things like plastic film signs and metal stands can cause damage to the sorting equipment at recycling facilities — or worse, even injure workers, Harris says. And corrugated plastic signs are often sorted in with cardboard, which contaminates batches of that material and complicates the recycling process. In some areas, the type of plastic they’re made from isn’t recyclable.
So how can I recycle my signs?
It may take a little effort, but you can keep most campaign signs out of the landfill. Montgomery County, for example, has a campaign sign recycling program running through Nov. 12 that accepts all types of signs at more than a dozen drop-off points. Other counties, including Philadelphia, Lewis says, do not have similar programs, but there are still some things you can do to recycle.
Plastic film signs, Harris says, are similar to things like shopping bags and bread bags, and may be able to be recycled at many grocery or big-box stores, including Acme, Target, and Walmart. Those places often have plastic bag return bins in the front of their stores; just contact the store first to see if they can accept them.
Your signs' metal stands, however, need to go somewhere a little more specialized — namely a scrap metal yard. These places, Harris says, are accessible in every county, and can properly recycle the oddly shaped metal stands. You could even save them up alongside other metal items that shouldn’t go in your recycling, like toasters or old tools, and make a yearly trip to drop them off.
Corrugated plastic signs are trickier, and have fewer options for recycling. Generally, they’ll need to be processed by a specialized recycling effort, like Montgomery County’s campaign sign recycling program, or they’ll have to go in the trash. But if you miss this year’s drop-off program, there’s always next year.
“If people miss our drop off and they want to pile their signs in the garage for next year, that’s definitely something people do,” Harris says. “Luckily, they’re pretty easy to store.”
Can the signs be reused?
While corrugated plastic campaign signs are the most difficult to recycle, they also happen to be the most reusable. Guides online suggest painting over the original message with chalkboard paint and making your own custom sign, to repurposing them into, say, guinea pig cages, so feel free to get creative.
Or, if you’re not feeling crafty, you can always donate them to an organization that is — like Tiny WPA. Located in West Philly, the nonprofit is currently soliciting donations of corrugated plastic campaign signs, which they’ll turn into a wide array of items, including stools, lights, planters, and educational items like oversize flash cards.
Their star item, however, is known as a “Build-It! Disk,” which cofounder Alex Gilliam describes as a “building toy, like a big Lego.” In just a few years of using corrugated plastic as a material for their Build-It! Disks, Tiny WPA has made as many as 1,500 of them, which are used to build all kinds of structures at community building events.
“Being able to have Coroplast Build-It! Disks is awesome because you can use them outside in all weather,” he says. “They’re pretty joyful, too.”