July 18, 2018
Despite the prevalence of posted signs throughout the city, it is illegal in Philadelphia to post or pay someone to post a sign on a streetlight, utility pole, traffic sign, historical marker or street tree.
First-time offenders can expect a $300 per sign fine, while repeat offenders may be fined up to $2,000 per sign.
From June 1 to June 15, 24 community organizations participated in Philadelphia’s first Bandit Signs Brigade. The groups gathered more than 8,000 illegal signs in the Illegal Signs Roundup, hosted by the City of Philadelphia’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet.
“We want to connect [these community groups] so they see they’re not alone in hating signs and wanting to tear them down,” said Nic Esposito, the director of the cabinet. “We want to give them some morale boost that the city is also looking at this, that we want to go after these businesses who are repeat offenders, who know this is illegal but continue to do it anyway.”
In October, the signs will be repurposed in partnership with Mural Arts’ Trash Academy, a collaborative project between community members, artists and environmental activists that aims to help people become experts on trash and test grassroots solutions to trash issues through projects, workshops and games.
“When you elicit people’s imagination and you work together on things, I think that you can do more than when there’s any kind of shaming and blaming like, ‘Don’t litter,’” said Shari Hersh, senior project manager at Mural Arts. Hersh oversees Trash Academy via Restored Spaces, a Mural Arts initiative that uses public art to spark neighborhood change.
She added the goal of Trash Academy’s partnership with the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet is to draw attention to Coroplast, a type of plastic that often can’t be recycled or isn’t accepted by recycling facilities. Many of the signs rounded up by the Bandit Signs Brigade use Coroplast.
“In the capitalist system we have learned that when you make a product, you don’t have to address its disposal,” Hersh said. “You can market a cool new product and people can be psyched about it. … It’ll last in the rain and you don’t have to think about the fact that the plastic never breaks down, it can’t be recycled.”
The city paid the community groups who participated in the Bandit Signs Brigade 50 cents for every sign collected.
Trash Academy hasn’t yet finalized a project idea for the signs, but Hersh said the initiative is exploring three potential ideas that will repurpose the signs into something useful for the community.
“We’re not going to try to make some big, giant art project out of it … which would then have a symbolic meaning,” Hersh said. “We are going to try to have an actual re-meaning of it, where we can actually use it.”
The city paid the community groups who participated in the brigade 50 cents for every sign collected, with a cap of $250 per group. The organizations will use the money to buy cleaning programs and supplies to continue greening city streets.
Esposito said he loved to see passionate and engaged community members come together for the Illegal Signs Roundup.
“Some people might think, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a sign on a pole,’” he added. “It just looks like it’s signaling [to] people [that] you can come into this community and you can do this illegal thing and no one’s going to say anything about it. People are frustrated about that.”
Esposito acknowledged a cultural aspect to hanging illegal signs, with many music industry pros having done so for years. The Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet plans to install designated advertising kiosks in neighborhoods where signs can be posted legally to prevent future illegal sign hanging.
“We’re trying to meet people halfway,” Esposito said. “Once we put in these kiosks and once we spread the word enough, it’ll be a zero-tolerance policy.”
While Hersh said she’s glad the Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet is taking a rigorous approach to cleaning the city, she said trash is a complicated issue connected to climate change and the way society produces, uses and disposes of products.
“It’s not just about [the city] doing better about picking up trash,” Hersh said. “It is about consumption.”
This summer, Trash Academy started a new campaign to eliminate single-use plastics like plastic bags and take-out containers from Philadelphia neighborhoods that it will focus on for the next year. Trash Academy will try to expand throughout the city as part of the campaign.
“There’s more neighborhoods that want to work with us,” Hersh said. “People want to do this. They want a change to happen in Philly.”