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Image: Archi Banal
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PoliticsOctober 31, 2023

What happens to all the election hoardings?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

They’re big, they’re bold and they’re everywhere – then all of a sudden, they’re gone. But once their campaigning days are done, where do all those signs pleading for your vote end up? Dylan Jones investigates.

In the months leading up to a general election, plastic signs with snappy slogans and well-dressed candidates inundate the nation. Intersections become awash with bright colours representing the full spectrum of parties. Residential fences that would normally go unnoticed become sites of political campaigning.

And then, on the eve of the election, almost magically, the hoardings disappear as quickly as they went up.

The fate of the cumulative mountain of thin plastic boards is often overshadowed by the arguably more important matter of who is going to run our country. But, in an age of pursuing environmental sustainability and public accountability, it must be asked: where do the hoardings go, and what’s the financial and environmental cost?

I contacted the successful parties and every presumptive member of parliament (yes, all 121 of them) to find out. The answers I got back, while few, were insightful. Mirroring the election result, it was a “bluenami”, with five individual MP responses coming from National and one each from Labour and the Greens.

By and large, the election hoarding material of choice is corflute, a lightweight, weatherproof and polypropylene plastic that can be printed on. It can be recycled at commercial facilities into other more permanent plastic products such as outdoor furniture, fence posts and, in a very meta turn of events, recycling bins.

A National spokesperson confirmed that some of their 18,000 signs were “being collected and returned to our suppliers, which use a professional recycling company to bale, granulate and pelletise the corflute, returning to its raw state to be reused in new material”.

One of those recycling companies is Future Post, whose main product is recycled plastic fence posts on farms.

Future Post expects to receive signs from all political parties this election, with CEO Jerome Wenzlick saying there will probably be a few thousand signs contributing to the company’s distinctive black fence posts.

While recycling corflute signs was possible, Wenzlick said Future Post wouldn’t be able to handle an entire campaign load but was hoping for “a heck of a lot more as we grow our capacity for it”.

Spokespeople from Labour, Act and the Greens also indicated some of their signs would be recycled in a similar manner, but didn’t provide further detail.

While some signs find a second life converted into a new product, a lot of them are snapped up by community members and put to work in a number of resourceful ways in spaces of creativity, conservation and construction.

National signs might be found in archery club backboards, retaining walls, or as insulation for beehives.

If you’re involved in school arts and crafts, native bird habitats, or protesting, you could be using a Green sign.

Labour said theirs went to places like community gardens to become planter bed lining, and environmental groups for use in predator trappings.

In the most reliable of public polling methods, an Instagram story on my personal account, people spoke of bases for jigsaw puzzles and creating terrain for tabletop games like Warhammer. One suggestion, edited for appropriateness, was to use the image of an elected official as a seat for hill sledding.

Greg Fleming, right, says his signs went to beekeepers, craft groups and a local school (Photo: Supplied)

The ratio of reuse to recycle varied among MPs, with new Maungakiekie National MP Greg Fleming saying most if not all of his 200 signs were distributed among beekeepers, craft groups and Ellerslie Primary School.

“They were probably the most reusable plastic I’ve ever encountered,” said Fleming.

National’s Banks Peninsula presumptive MP Vanessa Weenink (it’s possible the special votes could change her 83-vote majority later in the week), said that apart from 30 signs that were stolen or removed, 280 of hers were destined to become fence posts.

Vanessa Weenink’s hoardings are being turned into fence posts (Photo: Supplied)

A campaign manager for West Coast Tasman Labour candidate and list MP Damien O’Connor said his hoardings bypassed community distribution as almost all of them were subject to “disgusting graffiti… inappropriate language with violent images and references”.

No party spokespeople indicated that any signs went to landfill, instead only mentioning reuse and recycle options

But in the days following the election, a keen-eyed Napier local spotted a pile of signs belonging to Labour candidate Mark Hutchinson among rubbish at the Redclyffe refuse station.

When asked about this, a Labour spokesperson said despite candidates making efforts to distribute signs to the community, “if they can’t find someone who wants to use them, they will end up in landfill.”

Labour hoardings spotted atop a pile of rubbish at a Napier dump (Photo: Supplied)

Even though it’s somewhat recyclable, corflute is still plastic and some amount of it is going to the dump. Are there more sustainable alternatives?

A Green spokesperson said there was, and they’ve been exploring those options in the most recent campaign.

Some local Green teams had experimented with printing and reprinting on plywood. Others were trying out different types of paperboard, including a moisture-resistant and sustainably sourced offering from Swedish manufacturer Oppboga.

Julie Anne Genter favours billstickers (Photo: Supplied)

New Rongotai Green MP Julie Ann Genter said paperboard could potentially be a wasteful option if it needed to be replaced, especially if it “didn’t hold up to wind and rain in Wellington”.

Genter said she ordered just under a hundred signs for her campaign, opting for an increased focus on digital billboards and street billstickers.

A common theme across all parties was the reuse of timber for sign stands.

Dana Kirkpatrick, left, and one of her hoardings on reused wood (Photo: Supplied)

First-time candidate and new East Coast National MP Dana Kirkpatrick said her campaign spent nothing on wood as it had been saved from previous elections. “It seems to be doing a good job as it has been used for numerous elections and will be stored again for the next one,” said Kirkpatrick.

New Upper Harbour National MP Cameron Brewer, meanwhile, mused that “given the rusty nature of the bolts, screws and washers [used on hoardings]… they would go back to the early days of Paula Bennett”, who held the seat for National from 2014 to 2020.

Cameron Brewer attaching a sign to a fence with screws that may or may not have been touched by Paula Bennett (Photo: Supplied)

Rounding out the three Rs of waste management, there are efforts to reduce waste in some election campaigns.

According to a Green campaign spokesperson, there was “still a need for corflute hoardings for public and private sites to campaign on a level playing field… but we have tried to maximise our online and digital billboards as much as possible”.

Nelson City Council is one local government body that draws a line in the sand, with the Resource Management Plan limiting each candidate to a maximum of 10 signs across the entire electorate to achieve a “low sign environment”.

Based on figures provided by MPs, that would mean at least 90% fewer signs if a similar limit was implemented across the country.

Whether or not the future of the election sign looks different depends on who you talk to.

Andrew Bayly, National list MP running in the Port Waikato byelection on November 25, is committed to corflute, seeing it as “the only viable option for outdoor signs as it is robust and enduring”.

Labour and the Greens both said they were looking at more environmentally friendly campaign promotions, with the latter already actively engaging in some of those options.

So there may be some innovative changes in store for campaigning materials in future elections that mean we see fewer plastic signs used.

At least for now, my curiosity is sated knowing where this year’s hoardings have ended up. 

Sadly, an unknown number will be sitting in landfill alongside broken couches and Big Black Sack rubbish bags.

But in some form or another, the rest have gone back into the community, aiding New Zealanders with their endeavours in agriculture, education, entertainment, or maybe just going for a hoon down some sand dunes.

Keep going!