Recycled Environmental Awareness

I’m here at home sitting at my patio table - outdoors on the covered portion of our deck - with fingers poised over the laptop keyboard waiting for inspiration. My assignment for this issue is to opine on the subject of “going green” (another trendy phrase for “environmentalism”) and its effects on the sign trade. Frustrated by a lack of the inspiration I always need to begin, I stopped to listen to the rainfall that had just started.

Then it hit me.

I was outdoors - on a cool, rainy night (we had a lot of rain in the Midwest this August!) with lightning and thunder having silenced the din of the cicadas - and their every 17-year mating ritual. The crickets weren’t chirping yet - and the birds were avoiding the weather. The sky was darker than it should be at 7pm, the thunder and lightning subsided and the clouds above swirling in light and dark shades of gray. Except for the rain, it was dead calm.

Just... wow.

Do you remember listening to the rain? Soaking up the smell of fresh mown grass? When was the last time you lay down outside and watch a bug do whatever bugs do? Are you even bothering to enjoy the beauty of nature that surrounds you every second of every day? I’ll answer for most of us: probably not as often as we should. But here I sit, not the least bit worried about deadlines, global warming or deforestation - just looking at and listening to what is going on around me - and I realize that I am always (every day) happy to be alive and enjoy the surroundings I’m in.

But I don’t necessarily take the time to stop and think about it. And that, my friends, has everything to do with what I found out about the sign business and how it approaches “going green”.

When I was given my latest subject to write about, it felt like I was being given an opportunity to make my contribution to the trendy environmental “landscape” by finding out firsthand what “going green” has done to the sign trade - or how it is being dealt with at the manufacturing level. The challenge was to expose what findings are now being initiated by commercial and electric sign companies.

I decided to see where our industry is at by talking to a variety of business owners about how their companies have addressed “going green”. I took an analytical approach and decided that one representative company of varied sizes and products offered would serve as a less-than-scientific cross section. I spoke with Mark Oatis of YESCO in Las Vegas for our “super-sized” sign companyDan Sawatzky, Yarrow, B.C., Canada, owner of Sawatzky’s Imagination Corporation, a well-known builder of fantasy and themed-environmental products; Scott Bouma of Scott’s Signs in Grand Rapids, Mich., a typical commercial sign company specializing in vehicle graphics and dimensional signsMike Sheehan, a Pensacola, Fla. sign designer who also manufactures a line of residential decorations and mailboxesand Gary Anderson, Bloomington, Ind., a small commercial shop owner with a reputation as one of the most innovative sign designers in the commercial sign industry.

While my focus may have a slant towards midsize and smaller commercial shops, I did opt to speak with YESCO in Las Vegas for a view of the sign trade from a company that would actually leave a more significant impact by “going green” than what most commercial shops can employ. YESCO, for example, is on the forefront of LED lighting development. LEDs are certainly one of the most environmentally sensitive lighting sources to come along in many years - though researchers believe that some day organic photovoltaic cells and organic, light-emitting diodes will someday replace LEDs.

YESCO also has a state-of-the-art system for the recycling of old fluorescent bulbs that pulverizes them into a sand-like consistency, according to Jim Morasco, Director of Environmental Safety and Health for YESCO. In the “old days” YESCO was just as concerned about proper disposal of those same bulbs - having to rebox all of the old tubes for proper disposal. Now, as many as seven or eight of YESCO’s Western U.S. operations have this same pulverizing equipment on site.

Thousands upon thousands of lineal feet of fluorescent bulbs are pulverized annually at YESCO’s operations - eliminating the need for cardboard boxes to place them back in, and taking up much less room than the old method. A disposal company contracted to get rid of such waste then takes the by-product to the recycling center.

With such a large fleet of vehicles, old vehicle lubricants are also recycled - and converted to heat during the “cooler” months in Las Vegas (I didn’t know there was a cooler month in Vegas!). Citrus-based cleaners used in their parts tanks is just one more example of YESCO’s leadership in the fight to be truly “green”. YESCO also buys nothing but recycled materials such as steel and aluminum - and even some plastics. Why, even their offices and manufacturing facilities are largely lit by energy efficient T5 lighting.

YESCO saw it coming. Once local, state and federal governments stipulated in their contracts that jobs using certain materials must be more ecologically sensitive, systems of dealing with it were put in place to address those issues of compliance.

Sadly, I can report that, aside from the truly impressive discoveries I made while interviewing employees of YESCO, no small or mid-sized sign company really does much of anything to reduce their “ecological footprint”.
Or so they think...

Remember the 1985 movie The Accidental Tourist that starred William Hurt and Geena Davis? Let me take literary license and change that name to The Accidental Environmentalist to describe the way modern shops are dealing with “going green”.

Here are some of the comments I got from my interviews: “We are probably one of the biggest contaminators around.” ... “I’ve never been much of a tree hugger. But I stopped pouring old motor oil on the weeds. I don’t think that was a good thing to do.” ... “Every now and then I try to feel bad about what I’m not doing (in regards to environmentalism).” ... “I’m a firm believer that we need to put lead back in sign painter’s paints.”

Frightening, huh? Well, considering they were said just a bit tongue-in-cheek, not really. I think those statements (all from people over the age of 50) are a reflection of people who have been right there watching the world “clean up” a bit more during their lives. They’ve seen the “Crying Indian” pollution commercials on TV. They have sat through countless “Woodsy the Owl” commercials (Give a Hoot - Don’t Pollute!). They saw the moving images of bulging-eyed dead fish in the Potomac River and they probably even remember the gas shortages (and long lines) from the early 1970s.

And these same people, all the while since then, have been practicing environmentalism in very quiet, unnoticeable ways - even to them. So, in essence, they are all “The Accidental Environmentalists” - people who very actively engaged in sound, earth-friendly practices but they don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing.

Who doesn’t collect pop cans and recycle them? Anybody reading this turn scrap metal in for money? (My findings indicate that trend usually results in pizza parties for the employees.) Who turns off shop lights that don’t need to be on? If building a new building, are you looking for ways to be more energy efficient with your choice of heating? You reuse water bottles too? Who keeps small pieces of sheet scrap just in case a job that requires a 12˝ square of Dibond comes up? Anybody keep small pieces of vinyl rolled up for those really small jobs?

Of course you do! You probably do all these things. But you don’t think about it! We’ve all just been doing it for about 30 to 35 years now - so its habit - not just a trend or today’s hype. Now do you feel better? You should.

You see, the sign business (and I don’t have anything but anecdotal evidence from a very reliable source to support my claim) apparently leaves a very small “ecological footprint” (the measure of human demand on nature - comparing human consumption of natural resources with planet Earth’s ecological capacity to regenerate them) on our environment when compared to other industries.

Largely due to sign people being frugal, cheap or maybe even environmentally-friendly, the industry is awash with great practices such as professional collection and incineration of isocyanate (contained in the hardeners and clear coats used by many vehicle graphics companies for traditional painting methods), energy-efficient lighting in work spaces, proper and adequate building insulation, efficient heating methods and practices, buying higher quality tools instead of cheap throwaways and even powering those better tools with 3-phase electric (3-phase electric costs are a fraction of regular electricity costs).

“Green” may be today’s buzzword in our culture, but environmentalism has been preached quietly since the mid-1960s when our youth finally realized the rape of our natural resources as profit and progress exceeded common sense in American business. The movement they created was a shift towards conservation that never really went away - but was more focused on polluting initially. Yes, “going green” is here to stay for now and for lack of a better analogy, largely due to the fact that “you can’t un-ring a bell”. The word is out - and has been for some time.

Perhaps the doomsday call we are warned about by ex-politicos and celebrities is correct - and just in the nick of time before we “destroy” ourselves by destroying our natural resources - or perhaps it is cyclical, as weather is so capable of being. We certainly did get a bit lax environmentally since the 60s.

But either opinion has little bearing on how you should run your sign business - for this, in my opinion, can be turned to your advantage by using it as a pure marketing play - and should be treated as such for those few who don’t consider themselves “environmentally-friendly”. For those of you who are, well, this fits nicely into your life-philosophies and you probably are already “green” in some sense anyway - you just don’t realize it.

But your customers need to know - without it being force-fed in very obvious and biased ways. If you live, eat and breathe environmentalism, then practice restraint. You don’t (successfully) talk religion and politics with your customers - so leave the preaching of the “green” out of your conversations. But do market the fact that you are doing your part to make a better world. As a business owner, you must adapt to an ever-changing marketplace. Going “green” is just one more of those occurrences that require more adaptation.

For those less radical, again, promoting a culture of environmentalism might be construed as patronizing or hypocritical by some - but let’s face it, if the scientists are right about our impact on climate, you’re really doing a good thing. Being conscious of our “throwaway” society - and realizing that the depletion of resources actually costs more if not used ecologically - is not an advisable stance to take for those interested in making money in the sign business. It appears we’re all doing that to some degree now anyway.

If scientists and advocates are one day proved wrong about the problems brought to the forefront today, then take solace in the ability to use the latest hype as one more way to “line your nest” for retirement by bringing in some extra revenue through successful marketing of your company’s newfound embracing of environmentalism - and the entire concept of living a “green” existence. Either way, isn’t win-win the best conclusion for all parties and environmental theologies?

In my opinion, the real truth is, we’ve just recycled our environmental awareness - and what is a buzzword today is just more of what we all have been doing for a long time. Now we’re just getting better at a life with the mantra “reduce, reuse or recycle” and science is helping us figure out more and better ways to “save the earth”.

There is evidence to suggest it is the result of our careless expansion of industry and creation of power sources and, conversely, evidence to suggest that it is merely cyclical in nature and little if any effect from industry.

Unsure whether it is hype or reality? Try to find one news story on global warming in Colorado when the temperature is five degrees below zero. But listen to the hum of the words “global warming” when the temperature in January is 70 degrees in Denver. (The record high temperature for any month in Colorado was set in 1887 - a little while before all this talk of global warming.) Truly, it all depends on which facts you choose to listen to and believe.

But anecdotal evidence from Colorado - or the Midwest - is far less important than what is going on at the fringes of nature - where the first signs of a warming planet are starting to be far more obvious. Greenhouse gases have measurably increased - that’s a fact - and something is certainly amiss. So we should try to be better stewards of our planet - if for no one else than our future generations. It is a debt we owe to them. If the United States sets the lead, other, less developed countries will follow as the global expansion continues.

I believe what we will see in the future is more responsible “green” manufacturing practices at the supplier level feeding us products which we consume with care and recycle what is possible. But at the sign shop level, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t believe the hype nor castigate yourselves for driving SUVs. It’s what the manufacturers wanted you to buy - offered to you - and you only had limited options. However, pressure on those larger companies wanting to look environmentally sound and sensitive to keep up with today’s hype must be continued or we’ll slip right back into a period of environmental malaise.

But we can always recycle the hype again, right?

Go enjoy the beauty of the world around you and soak it all in (guilt-free).