Lights Out

End-of-life LED billboards are a rich source of scrap metals.

April 22, 2011—Earth Day—a tornado in the St. Louis area toppled a 14-foot-by-48-foot digital billboard, raising a question about this new large-format electronics product: What happens to digital billboards that are damaged beyond repair or that reach obsolescence?

As a result of the experience in St. Louis, the outdoor advertising industry has learned that almost the entire unit can be recycled. Some parts are reused, and a fraction—less than 2 percent—is disposed of at certified facilities.

"Recycling is more practical than the landfill," sums up Rod Wardle, vice president at digital billboard manufacturer Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO) in Logan, Utah. "The landfill is not a smart man's option."

A Red Herring
Nationwide, there are up to 400,000 billboards. Paper and glue are giving way to polyethylene (PE) large-format printed materials. More than 4 million pounds of used billboard ads were recycled from 2009 through mid-2011.

In the last decade, some 2,400 billboards have been converted to digital displays containing LED lights. Color static images rotate every six, eight or 10 seconds, depending on state and local rules.

Advertisers like the flexibility, and government is using this new communications platform to deliver emergency messages and to find fugitives and abducted children.

Like most electronics products, digital billboards wear out eventually. All stakeholders—regulators, the billboard industry and anti-sign critics—wondered about the fate of digital billboards once they had fulfilled their useful lives.

In a report released in 2010, an anti-sign group based in Philadelphia raised the specter of "an abundance of difficult-to-recycle, discarded technology." To illustrate the group's point, this widely circulated report, "Illuminating the Issues" by Gregory Young, featured a photo of out-of-date cathode-ray-tube monitors with the caption: "Could digital signage one day face a similar fate?"

This scary question turned out to be a red herring.

Aluminum comprises more than 64 percent of an LED billboard, which also yields stainless steel and copper wire and LED modules with metal content.

Earth Day Lesson
The April 22 tornado in St. Louis created a real-life test scenario. Could a local billboard crew in the American heartland disassemble a digital billboard and could the parts be recycled?


In the parlance of the outdoor advertising industry, the digital billboard that was damaged by the tornado is known as a "back-to-back" sign, or two displays on a monopole that face both directions of traffic. The billboard's owner (Lamar Advertising Co.) transported these two damaged digital displays to its company-owned shop in Hannibal, Mo.

Local Lamar crews successfully dismantled the components. Working with the sign manufacturer (Daktronics), they took these steps:

  • The aluminum was sold to a local recycler for some $2,000. (Sixty-four percent of a digital billboard is aluminum, according to manufacturers.)
  • Another local recycler bought the stainless steel and copper wiring.
  • The LED modules damaged beyond repair were separated from the plastic housing and recycled for the metals. The plastic housing also was recycled into various items, including asphalt fill, says Bill Ripp, digital director at Lamar.
  • Damaged fan assemblies were scrapped as bulk metal, and others will be used as spare parts.

The cost to dismantle a digital billboard can be offset by the income from recycling, according to Daktronics' experience.

Local Options
Looking across the country, Ripp says damaged or obsolete digital billboards can be recycled in most areas.

"We now know we can disassemble the product, and recyclers will take the scrap," he says.

"Recycling locally can be a logical choice," says Jerry Young, Daktronics billboard account manager. "Most local recyclers will provide services to pick up materials after they have been dismantled. Recycling locally can save freight costs if recycling service providers can be found in the area."

He adds, "The result of recycling is a check after the recycler has weighed all the materials."

In some cases, a billboard manufacturer may opt to haul the damaged boards from the display location back to its facility for dismantling.

In the Phoenix area, four Clear Channel Outdoor digital billboards made by YESCO were damaged beyond repair by hail in 2010. YESCO delivered new digital billboards to Phoenix to replace the hail-damaged units, says Lou Musica, senior vice president for domestic digital at Clear Channel Outdoor. On the return trip, the trucks hauled the damaged billboards back to Utah to be dismantled and recycled.

Financially, this sort of transaction is a wash, or the manufacturer may lose a few dollars. But, consider the alternative: the undesirable prospect of digital billboards headed to landfills.

"These signs weigh up to 9,000 pounds," Wardle says. "It's more expensive to take a digital billboard to a landfill than it is to recycle it."


The author is executive vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at

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