October is a pretty intense month for me. Between craft markets, conferences, weddings, and music, I've been on the road more than I've been at home. One of the ubiquitous things about a road trip is billboards. They pop up along every highway, but I don't think folks consider how much waste goes along with outdoor advertising.
The way that they get the art up onto billboards is basically by printing the artwork onto a giant piece of vinyl (plastic!) and stretching it over the huge frame. That means that every time a company changes or discontinues its outdoor ad campaign, they're sending all of that plastic to the landfill. There are some companies that are transforming that plastic into other products, like bike bags, but a lot of that plastic just ends up in a landfill. Boo!
While heading down I-95 towards Savannah, we spotted "green billboards," and it definitely gave me pause. We were going to fast for me to snap a photo, but the one above is similar to the one that we saw.
What makes a billboard "green?"
The first, most obvious change was that these billboards were electronic. That means no big sheets of vinyl. Instead, they just upload the artwork, and they're ready to sell you fast food, hotel stays, and cheap amusement park tickets without all of that waste. With anything electronic, though, you have to wonder about a few things:
- How are they powering the screen? If it's from the grid, that means coal, and that is far from eco-frienly.
- How did they produce the screen? Were the parts made in sweatshops? How green are the guts of this thing?
- What happens when they break? Nothing lasts forever. Will these giant billboards end up in the landfill?
The first question varies depending on the company. Many electronic billboards are solar powered, which is pretty awesome.
Questions two and three are even tougher to answer. It is very hard to track supply chains for electronics, and it's difficult to produce a truly green monitor. While green monitors may be made with lower levels of toxins like cadmium and lead, they still contain these heavy metals, and something this size is bound to be somewhat toxic.
There's also the point that the folks at Ode Magazine make about the green billboards that went up in Times Square:
But aren’t billboards mainly irritating because they’re mental and visual pollution? After all, billboards are everywhere and they seem hard to avoid. Brands are infiltrating every aspect of our lives and polluting our mental environment, as the Canada-based culture jammers group Adbusters has been arguing for many years.
All that said, I'm happy to see any industry taking a look at the waste it's producing and looking for alternatives, but I do think that billboards have a long way to go if they're going to be truly green. What do you guys think?
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by normanack