3 ways to dispose of campaign signs that are better than throwing them out

Throwing your campaign signs in the garbage can be harmful to the environment. We spoke to experts about the best ways to dispose of them.
Campaign signs are challenging to recycle because they're made from multiple materials, such as metal, plastic and cardboard.
Campaign signs are challenging to recycle because they're made from multiple materials, such as metal, plastic and cardboard.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images/ Reuters
/ Source: TODAY

With most of the country's presidential and congressional election votes counted, it's nearly time to pull out the campaign signs that have decorated yards for the past several months. But what should you do with them?

Some 90% of campaign signs are made from corrugated cardboard coated in plastic, estimated Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics in Bennington, Vermont, an organization trying to end single-use plastic pollution. And that makes them challenging to dispose of in an environmentally friendly way.

For example, throw out your plastic campaign sign, and it'll end up in either a landfill, where it'll be "very slow" to biodegrade, or a waste incinerator, which releases "toxic emissions and greenhouse gases" when burning plastic, Enck told TODAY. Landfills, too, produce greenhouse gases, mostly methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

If you want to dispose of your campaign signs in a way that doesn't hurt the environment, then consider these other options first.

Reuse them

The best option for the environment is to hang on to your campaign signs and reuse them in the next election cycle by recovering them with paper or a plastic add-on, Eric Goldstein, recycling expert and senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, told TODAY.

Another option is to paint over it and put your own message on it, said Lynn Hoffman, co-president of nonprofit recycler Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis. You could also consider a DIY project using the materials from the sign.

"On Pinterest, there's a million ideas for how to repurpose your signs," she told TODAY.

Do your research before recycling plastic campaign signs

Because most campaign signs are made of multiple materials, usually including plastic, they're "all but impossible to recycle," Enck said.

Your best bet, per Goldstein and Hoffman, is to contact your municipality to find out if they'll recycle the type of sign you have. "It varies depending upon the exact (materials) of the sign, and what the local programs are collecting for recycling," Goldstein explained.

To tell the difference between types of signs, you need only look at and touch them, Enck said. Signs that are all corrugated plastic will feel sturdier than those that have a cardboard base. Other signs are made of a plastic bag-like material, Hoffman said, so those may be recyclable with single-use grocery bags, but again, inquire within your municipality to be sure.

You should also break down the sign before recycling it by removing the metal stand from the sign itself. That way, if your town collects scrap metal, you can recycle the metal posts attached to the sign at the very least. You likely won't be able to leave them in your curbside bin, Enck said, so check with your municipality for specifics about collection or dropping it off.

Most campaign signs aren't made of only corrugated cardboard, but if you have one, then it's likely you can recycle it, Enck said. Just follow regulations for recycling corrugated cardboard in your community.

Last, if you're in any doubt about whether your campaign sign is recyclable in your community, then leave it out, Hoffman said.

"Putting (it) in your recycling hoping something good will happen is really problematic for recyclers and the program in general," she explained. "It just adds cost and contamination to the things that actually are (recyclable)."

Donate it or give it back

The process for collecting campaign signs after elections across most of the country is the "Wild West," Enck said, but some campaigns will take them back and reuse them.

There also may be an organization in your community to which you can donate campaign signs, and they'll repurpose or recycle it. For example, Tiny WPA, a community engagement nonprofit in Philadelphia, is asking locals to drop them off and will arrange a pickup for a large number of signs. It also accepts donations from neighboring counties.

Also in Pennsylvania, the Centre County Recycling and Refuse Authority has been accepting donations of campaign signs and recycling them for residents for the past 12 years, recycling coordinator Joanne Shafer told TODAY. She said there are other organizations across that country that will accept signs and either recycle them, reprint or repurpose them, but they can be difficult to find. She recommended contacting your county or local recycling coordinator to point you in the right direction.

Get cardboard next time

Because cardboard is much easier to recycle than plastic, Goldstein stressed that this is the best option for campaign signs. What's more, campaign signs were made entirely of cardboard for decades, and only more recently has plastic been introduced, he added.

"Corrugated cardboard is one of the most successfully recycled materials across the nation," Goldstein said. "Cardboard signs ... are much more gentle on the environment, so sometimes the older approach may be the preferable one."