Sustainable Sign Companies

How signmakers integrate green processes and materials into projects – and shop operations.
A project by RiverWorks Printing (Greenland, NH).

At her previous stops with print and sign companies, Danis Chamberlin’s environmentally conscious ideals were greeted with pushback, with the high price of sustainable media a preeminent sticking point. “I knew that was why I probably kept getting the ‘no,’” Chamerberlin recalled. Then, nine years ago, Chamerberlin’s friends opened RiverWorks Printing in Greenland, NH and asked if she would be the company’s print manager. “They knew nothing about printing, so, of course, I jumped at it because I could be the decision-maker,” she said with a laugh.

RiverWorks, a three-employee large-format outfit, fashions itself as a “small shop that does big things.” The sustainability-minded company produces everything from vehicle wraps to site signage to banners; it was recently awarded a signage project for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s (SITES) water conservation exhibition at the Seacoast Science Center, a museum located seven miles east of RiverWorks. SITES compiles its own designs, leaving the host museums to create the displays. Seacoast built the sign frames and RiverWorks prepped the design files, and with an assist from a vendor, it printed the SITES signage on Falconboard (a recyclable rigid graphics media board) with UV-cured inks. Some of the exhibit was also printed on RiverWorks’ latex printer. “The client didn’t want to have this exhibit – all about educating people about how water works in our world – end up in a landfill,” Chamberlin noted.

Chamberlin realizes it’s not economically feasible to just stock sustainable media, so RiverWorks uses a blend of sustainable and non-sustainable media. “We try to keep our markup on the sustainable media pretty tight to make it easier for people to make the right choice,” Chamberlin said. The shop itself is designed around sustainability, too – RiverWorks gangs runs whenever possible; it donates materials and services to local non-profits and extra materials to the art programs of local schools; and it recycles everything possible, from office and large-format print papers to ink cartridges and batteries. RiverWorks collaborates with a nearby facility to recycle much of its waste, including items formerly non-recyclable due to material or price. 

RiverWorks is also a part of Green Alliance, a local organization that promotes sustainable and eco-friendly businesses through marketing and strategic development and discount programs, among other initiatives. RiverWorks has talked with Green Alliance about the affordability of installing solar panels on its roof. “It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still the barking dog in that department,” Chamberlin said.

SUSTAINABLE SINCE THE START

Digital GreenSigns LLC purchases renewable energy credits for its billboards through an Illinois electric utility.
Digital GreenSigns LLC purchases renewable energy credits for its billboards through an Illinois electric utility.

Digital GreenSigns LLC’s (Des Plaines, IL) commitment to sustainability lies in its original business plan, a document birthed in 2009 – three years before the digital billboard company opened for business in August 2012 – and as a personal goal of CEO Joseph Mancino. GreenSigns has 16 billboard locations in and around Chicago – eight of which are “green,” according to Mancino. The other eight were not originally erected in an eco-friendly manner, but now operate under Greensigns’ thumb, which means they are powered by wind and/or solar energy.

When GreenSigns constructs its new billboard locations – it contracts the fabrication out-of-house – recycled steel is employed to build the structure. Also, if the billboard is digital, recycled plastic resins are used for the LED panels. The copy for the static billboards is printed on Circle Graphics’ (Longmont, CO) Eco-Flexx vinyl. Eco-Flexx is free of chlorine, toxic phthalates and is about 70% lighter than traditional PVC material. “Occasionally, when we get a national advertiser, they go out and buy the material. We ask for Eco-Flexx; whether they give it to us or not, it’s up to them,” Mancino said. “When we are in control of the production, we always spec out Eco-Flexx.”

GreenSigns also purchases renewable energy credits through Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), an Illinois electric utility that contracts with sustainable energy providers. This practice allows GreenSigns to stay on its main grid, yet purchase wind and solar energy directly through ComEd. “It makes it clean and easy for us,” Mancino said. “It helps us confirm that we are indeed getting sustainable power as opposed to traditional fossil power.”

In GreenSigns’ early days, Mancino said sustainability was cutting into his company’s bottom line. “It cost us more to deploy the types of initiatives such as wind and solar energy,” Mancino said. As time went on, the savings began to add up. GreenSigns’ office is paperless – no paper employee handbooks, no paper printing and no faxes – and it doesn’t buy bottled water. GreenSigns has also seen the fruit of its labor pay off with its customers; Mancino said that about 50% of his clients value sustainable practices now compared to “very little” appreciation or reaction at GreenSigns’ founding. “Reaching sustainability is a journey; it’s not a destination,” Mancino said.

LEAN, GREEN RECYCLING MACHINE

Philadelphia Sign Co. has an extensive recycling program and does LED lighting conversion projects, like this one for Regions Bank.
Philadelphia Sign Co. has an extensive recycling program and does LED lighting conversion projects, like this one for Regions Bank.

Philadelphia Sign Co. (Palmyra, NJ) was founded over 100 years ago, and developed into a national sign business with a dedication to sustainability – and recycling at the forefront of its cause. Philadelphia Sign’s recycling program includes cardboard (through a nearby service); aluminum (sent to a plant in Camden, NJ that melts the unpainted metal and then recycles it); dirty metal (iron, steel, and old signs and parts are sent to a recycler across the street from Philadelphia Sign’s production plant in Pennsauken, NJ); Plexiglas (chipped down to pellets and recycled); raw materials (scraps are recycled to various companies); and wood (picked up by a recycler, eventually converted into mulch).

Philadelphia Sign also has used paint and lamps – such as fluorescent lamps and neon that have mercury and paint byproducts – picked up by a recycler. “With so many different parts to a sign, we want to ensure that the breakdown is environmentally safe,” said Carly DeGrasse, marketing manager.

In 2010, Philadelphia Sign converted its plant in Pennsauken to solar power; according to the company, the installation generates 1.1 million kWh of electricity and counteracts 4,700-acres-of-trees worth of carbon pollution each year. That sizable commitment to sustainable power reflects Philadelphia Sign’s design, fabrication and installation abilities with solar-powered signage and LED lighting conversion, with the latter applicable to Philadelphia Sign’s partnership with Regions Bank. “We have been doing work for them for the past six years,” DeGrasse said. “We are on a maintenance plan and we also work on various new locations.”

As “going green” becomes increasingly prominent in product debuts and signshop stockpiles, the trend is no longer a vocal sect embracing sustainability; it is a swelling assembly whose adherents not only insert green materials and products into their projects, but also embrace sustainability as a modus operandi for their businesses.

Signs of the Times August 2018

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