Sustainability has been a key issue in sign fabrication for the last five years and interesting enough, the key debates never seem to get fully resolved. We still fight over the effectiveness of various methods and this is as it should be since technology changes frequently, and traditional approaches are often revisited. Below is an update of four of the most important sustainability strategies facing sign manufacturers.
The benefits of local production require careful planning
From a review of the sustainability industry one trend is clearest. Local is the key to sustainability. When fuel costs are taken into consideration, the costs of local production can often be much cheaper than delivering from long distances. While this may in fact be true for a variety of goods from agricultural products to natural materials it is often not that clear a picture in the sign industry. Well packaged signs often take up minimal space and allows for intense specialization and custom fabrication. An ADA wayfinding system produced at one of the UK’s excellent manufacturers and shipped as one system in a shipping container to Qatar may well be more economical and sustainable than a local operation. On the other hand shipping one sign from a great distance clearly produces a great deal of waste. The reality is that fabricators would be best served by a glocal (Global and local) strategy that weighs multiple scenarios as opposed to a one size fits all approach.
Low VOC paints are still being debated
The battle over VOC paints still rage with fabricators still swearing that low VOC paints are not effective because without the VOC rich adhesives that are found in both the base coat and pigmentation of paint, many more applications are needed for the same effect. In addition many of these paints did not meet international standards for low VOC’s by using harmful substitutes. This was clearly the case five years ago when VOC paints started being sold to the sign industry, but is it still today? One big benefit of low VOC paints produced today is there has been a movement to remove all harmful compounds which has largely succeeded. On the downside there are still fabricators who have problems with the paint, particularly with long term storage and durability. The best advice in this environment is not to use the paint as a substitute, but look for applications and methods where it would be most worthwhile, particularly for interior uses. In addition sign companies should be wary about long term storage and handling issues.
Of course paint processes like powder coating use no VOC’s since they use electricity to bind paint (and now graphics) to materials. Companies like Direct Embed are now in the business of powder coated graphics which add a layer of flexibility to sign painting applications. Even though powder coating uses additional energy to make the signs most green rating services consider it a sustainable process. In addition material like phenolic and other laminates that lock in any volatile chemicals are also effective.
LED Innovation is Incredible but there are still steps to prevent waste
One area where there is very little debate left is the use of LED lighting which is now dominant in the industry. LED lighting is efficient, easy to install and contains few wasteful chemicals. LED’s though do generate electricity and efficient installation is still needed. This includes the use of LED’s in series or lattice configurations that are designed to provide maximum coverage at minimal cost and do not need unsustainable adhesives. In addition the cost and ease of LED controllers allows sign lighting to be programmed for more efficiency during dusk and evening hours.
Solar is on the rise
Until a few years ago solar was not seen as an system that could effectively be used for generating enough electricity to power signs. With LED advances and the shrinking of solar panels this is clearly not the case anymore. Companies like ID Signsystems produce a line of signs, bollards, and displays that are incredibly effective for external environments and solar panel costs have dropped to a fraction of their original price while increasing in efficiency through the use of dimensional and denser panels. This may be the time to consider how solar can be effectively integrated into future sign programs, but before dipping in make sure to conduct a careful review of the latest technology before trying to create a solar monument sign. Some things may still be some years away.
Nova Polymers and Sustainable Signs
Nova Polymers has a well regarded reputation for the sustainable methods involved in its manufacturing process including a water soluble etching process without the use of harmful chemicals. In addition photopolymers has a partnership with 3form, the leading maker of sustainable substrates for signs. With these advantages though there are still additional ways sign fabricators can follow even higher sustainable practices with photopolymer including:
• Use of recycled wood paneling and laminates for substrates. These wood panels are easy to find and come in a variety of options.
• Develop adhesive alternatives including aluminum pucks and standoff systems.
• Use more standardized sizes that maximize the use of the photopolymer sheets, and minimizing waste.
• Develop a global and local strategy focused on service and maintenance close to home and larger scale wayfinding projects on a national or international scale.