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Flagstaff activists make push to voters, candidates to avoid landfill, reuse campaign signs
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Flagstaff activists make push to voters, candidates to avoid landfill, reuse campaign signs

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With the votes counted and the 2020 election season soon in the past, many of the campaign signs set up on lawns around the country are destined for the trash.

But in Flagstaff, activists hope local signs will have a life beyond the dump.

Emily Melhorn, project manager with the Azulita Project, led a group of 20 volunteers over the weekend through the snowstorm to collect signs in the community in order to return them to candidates. The volunteers made a point to take only signs from people who were home that gave their permission and hoped their actions would raise awareness about the problems attached to single-use campaign signs.

As of early this week, the project ended up with more than 700 campaign signs tied to local elections, mainly the Flagstaff City Council and mayoral races. But in Melhorn's mind, it was never about getting every last sign in the community.

"I didn't want to be seen as the plastic fairy godmother, allowing people to [use signs] as usual and everything is going to be fine, meanwhile my dining room would never be habitable again," Melhorn said. "It was about beginning a conversation with not just candidates but the community."

Diverting the hundreds of signs from a local landfill is just the first step. Now Melhorn must help find a new purpose for the 4x5-inch signs made out of corrugated plastic to make sure the signs don't become pieces of junk.

Campaign signs are made from a plastic called polyproplene and are usually set in lawns with a set of metal stakes. The metal stakes are recyclable. Melhorn, however, heard from many people that a location in Phoenix could recycle the signs. In her research, she found that many signs are ground, repurposed once and then likely end up in a landfill.

"I'd much rather see these signs reused in a community from candidates if they run again, or repurpose them if absolutely necessary," Melhorn said.

She's been finding uses for the signs through word of mouth: The Coconino County Democratic Party is saving them to paint over and use as protest signs while the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra found a use for some of the metal stakes.

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The plastic signs are used like heavy-duty cardboard, and can be used for art projects or as signs for yard sales and birthdays.

"They can easily be cut up and used in decorations for all various holidays like reindeer, Christmas trees, etc. They can be cut into small strips to use in your garden to label your seedlings. You can make boxes out of them, and we provided a little tutorial on how to do that. I talked to someone who wants to use it for underskirting for their mobile home," Melhorn said.

Former mayoral candidate Charlie Odegaard and every member of the Flagstaff City Council pledged and took back their old signs. Council candidate Eric Nolan went as far as not using campaign signs at all.

Jim McCarthy, a re-elected councilmember, was actually ahead of the reuse curve. He collected every sign from his 2016 race and was able to reuse them this election season without buying any more. His campaign spent $1,515 on about 170 election signs in 2016, and didn't spend a penny on them this year.

Miranda Sweet, who won a seat on Council this year, took note of who received her signs and made a point to collect them all after the election to ensure they didn't end up in a landfill. She spent one weekend collecting as many as she could. Her campaign spent $2,100 on about 200 signs.

But both candidates felt the campaign signs helped win their re-election, especially during the pandemic. McCarthy said candidates feel more "credible" if people show their support with a lawn sign. Sweet said despite living and owning a business in Flagstaff for two decades, she felt the signs gave her a crucial opportunity to get her name out to people who didn't know her or her plan.

"I couldn't go door to door like I originally planned because of COVID. I couldn't go out. I wasn't doing door-hangers. I was kind of stunted in what my plan was," Sweet said. "The yard sign gave people that opportunity to see my name and ask questions among each other."

McCarthy liked that his signs didn't have a year on them to keep them current, whereas Sweet said she planned to put a sticker over the year if she plans to run for re-election.

In the future, Melhorn hopes candidates will have a plan for their signs after all the votes are cast and the signs must come down. She felt whether or not candidates had a plan for their signs could signal whether they would be responsible elected officials on environmental issues.

"If they can't be accountable in their own campaign as far as being good to the environment, how do you think they're going to perform in office?" Melhorn said.

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