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Sustainable signage

March 1st, 2008 / By: / Case Studies

The Society for Environmental Graphic Design recently published a Green Paper on best practices, strategies, and scenarios for sustainability in environmental graphic design.

The Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) Green Paper is designed to provide a strategic framework, resources, and inspiration for promoting sustainability in environmental graphic design (EGD).

Key green issues

The needs of the environmental graphic design community are different from those of the building community and, likewise, the group’s sustainability issues are unique to the EGD field. Considerations such as longevity, materials selection, design and manufacturing processes, graphic quality and sustainability, and durability are key factors in green strategies to address EGD.

Strategies for green EGD

The SEGD Green Paper proposes five strategies to incorporate sustainability into environmental graphic design projects, products, and methodologies. These strategies are not meant to provide specific guidelines for the use of a material, but are intended to provide a framework for asking questions about specific processes and approaches. These strategies, combined with the Green Audit (described in the complete Green Paper– see end notes), provide the framework for the SEGD Green Resource Guide, an updatable Web-based resource for materials, methods, and projects that utilize green approaches (available at www.segd.org).

Key decisions: Determine longevity

The five strategies for green EGD are built around a central theme in environmental graphic design, signage, and exhibition design: longevity, or performance over time. Determining how long a design object is meant to hold up over Used with permission: SEGD time and with constant use in its specific environment will determine the most appropriate materials and methodologies. Longevity is determined by answering the following questions:

  • How can you design for longevity? Longevity may be a consideration in achieving sustainability. Projects meant to survive for long periods of time should incorporate materials that will not weather or degrade quickly in the environment.
  • How long is the object’s useful life? Long-life objects must be designed to decompose slowly and with minimal harmful effect on the environment and surrounding surfaces.
  • Where is the object located? Many outdoor environments are particularly harsh on graphics and signage systems. If the object cannot survive its intended lifespan, frequent replacement will destroy any other gains in sustainability. Flexible sign systems enhance sustainability by incorporating changeability, which adds to the life of the system.
  • How often will the object be changed, assembled, or disassembled? Changing information requires a much greater degree of planning to ensure long-term sustainability. Mounting and modular assembly strategies can greatly facilitate change over time.
  • If the project is temporary, how will it be disposed of or recycled? If a project is meant to have a limited lifespan, a plan needs to be in place for the salvage, reuse, or recycling of materials.
  • What is the application? While there is no specific LEED policy or code on longevity, it should be considered in projects that are exposed to the elements and extreme wear and tear. Often, longevity requirements are at odds with recyclability and clean air issues, but are at the heart of environmentally sound design.

Case study: Minnesota State Fair EcoExperience

Products such as EcoSpun are created from the 100% recyled polyester of soda bottles as well as other recycled post-consumer products. The bottles are refined and purified, chopped up, and spun into fiber strands called Ecophab™. These strands are then woven or knit at one of two mills in the United States. Banners, awnings, and other fabric/alternative structures are some of the product’s applications in EGD. It is important to specify soy or waterbased inks with EcoSpun, as solvent-based inks compromise the recycling process.

  • Longevity: Since this product is new, there is not a great deal of research on longevity under outdoor conditions. Some fabricators have commented that the material does not wear well under the harshest outdoor urban conditions, including ultraviolet light and pollution. It is most often used indoors, where air quality is the biggest factor. The material is flame retardant and has strong tensile strength, so it holds up well in interior conditions that require extensive rolling and mobility.
  • Air and water quality: EcoSpun contains no chlorine or other halogens. It is nontoxic, producing neither dioxin nor other highly toxic materials. It is produced by a clean manufacturing process, with production waste recycled. The base material is non-toxic and does not contain chlorine or halogens. Water-based inks can make a clean banner with no out-gassing, albeit with a potential for weathering and runoff in outdoor environments.
  • Resource, waste management and End of Usable Life: Upcycled, the material is produced from soda bottles and other plastic recycled items. It is a polyester directly derived from these items. Banner material made from this material is disposed of in the same way as plastic bottles, as part of curbside recycling available in most jurisdictions.
  • Energy efficiency: This low-energy process consumes less energy than the manufacture of paper substrates.
  • Education: It is important to include information on recycling with instructions on the use of the material, since its appearance is not visibly different from other (non-recyclable) materials.
  • Challenges: There are very few environmental conflicts from this material as long as water-based inks are used during the printing process. It has yet to be tested under all real-world conditions, but for temporary interior applications, it is considered eff ective and environmentally friendly.

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