Blue + Gray = Green: Tips for Creating Sustainable Signage

By Special Contributor posted 01-28-2020 16:44


By Drew A. Gruber and Chris Brown   

When was the last time you thought about signage? Have you wondered if this seemingly static resource could be made better for the environment or easier on your organization’s bank account? Signage is omnipresent on the landscape, from stop signs along our roadways to interpretive signage at historic sites. We often take them for granted, underutilizing the resource, and putting up with a product which is long overdue for a facelift. 

Civil War Trails is the world’s largest open-air museum with over 1,200 signs across six states. It is an immense footprint to keep up with and in our pursuit of a sign which would last longer and be easier to maintain, we ended up with a system which is more ecologically friendly and less expensive. What was born out of necessity allows us to push the boundaries of what is possible. It is our hope that you will take this information back to your own museum and historic site.

When struck by a car the screws which hold our pedestals together will sheer allowing parts to be replaced instead of having to replace the entire sign. Look for pedestals which use rivets or screws to connect the frame to the legs and which are not welded together. | Credit:Civil War Trails, Inc.

The Pedestal

Signs are not—nor should they be—viewed as permanent infrastructure. The first step towards creating a more sustainable sign addresses anticipating change. As scholarship evolves the information relayed on your sign may become dated, or snow plows, lawn mowers, and vandalism will also take their toll on your signs. To gain access to the sign panel for updates or repairs do not use a pedestal which is welded together.

Pedestals which allow you to access the panel with a riveted system are leaps and bounds better than welded signs. However, they still have some drawbacks. Over the years expansion and contraction will slowly push the outer frame out of shape allowing moisture and environmental debris to settle. Moreover, rivets are notorious for bending the framing out of shape during maintenance. Look for a pedestal which has an inner and outer frame which float together and a panel which can be accessed with simple Phillips-head screws.

The Panel

The second step in creating a more sustainable sign is securing tough and recyclable panel material. There are several predominate materials for sign panels currently in use: fiberglass, high-pressure laminates (HPL), and acrylic. Recyclers are closing in on ways to recycle fiberglass but current limitations in recycling (combined with the materials susceptibility to lacerate skin) means the Trails team avoids fiberglass. HPL’s wear like iron provided the laminate isn’t compromised. However, like fiberglass, recycling HPL board is still hit or miss.

Civil War Trails utilizes a single sheet of acrylic which is reverse or "second surface” printed. This UV-resistant material is easily cleaned, graffiti-resistant, and the polymer can be recycled. Through the right company it can even be reconstituted back into new acrylic sheeting. While acrylic panels typically do not last as long as HPL, the need to regularly update sign content and the sustainability of the material makes acrylic our preferred choice. Ask your printer to use a “second surface” printing method when using acrylic.

Lastly, ensure that you own your sign artwork and the native files so that you can make updates without having to redesign the entire panel each time edits or maintenance is required. This will save you precious money and staff time. Although this doesn’t speak directly to recyclability, it will ensure your staff’s sanity and guard your budget, which are equally as important.

The Civil War Trails system uses a combination of directional ‘trailblazer’ signs and traditional interpretive signs. This post covers the interpretive sign materials and methods. | Credit: Civil War Trails, Inc.

What’s Old is New Again

Since 1994 our team at Civil War Trails has told the traditional martial narrative of the War alongside the Underground Railroad, the forgotten stories of women, freedom seekers, and Civil Rights. It is no surprise that over the last twenty years scholarship has changed our understanding of those events. Moreover, changes in site amenities and a dramatic shift in the profile of history travelers also necessitate that signage keep pace. Thus, signage must be flexible enough to be constantly amended outside of the need to utilize materials which are easy to repair and maintain.

Sustainable signage awards. | Credit: Civil War Trails, Inc.

Although it took almost a decade to find the right balance of fabricators, materials, methods, and recycling agents, the impact was measurable almost immediately. In 2018 we recycled 1.5 tons of used acrylic panels which we had dutifully hung onto until recycling technology enabled us to ensure they would not end up in a landfill. At the same time we recycled 682 pounds of aluminum from the old sign pedestals—not counting the parts and pieces we reused.

In completing this project we were recognized by the Maryland Department of the Environment and awarded the Virginia Green Travel Star Award. As of December 2019 we are also applying for recognition with NC Green Travel. While the recognition in these three states is welcome, we hope that our experience and this quick synopsis will encourage you to look to push the boundaries of your own signage.

While our product focuses on the past we are committed to a bright and sustainable future. Are you?

Drew Gruber is the executive director of Civil War Trails. Chris Brown is the assistant director of Civil War Trails. 


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