The Rise of Digital Billboards: What a Waste!

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On the typical American roadway, it is not uncommon to see large advertising billboards. Even looking out my office window, I see two of them: one for an insurance company, and the other with a scantily clad woman (not exactly sure what that ad is for). These types of billboards have been around for a long time, but are slowly being replaced with new flashy electronic billboards. According to a new report, digital billboards consume large amounts of energy and create a variety of electronic waste.

Digital billboards use thousands of tiny light emitting diodes (LED) bulbs which can be manipulated, so the image can be changed. The effect is a brighter sign which attracts the gaze of motorists and passengers, adding to our ever-growing distractions on the road. For billboard owners, they can be great for business, allowing their space to be sold to multiple advertisers at any one time.

Besides contributing to light pollution and being a visual annoyance to some, digital billboards also use massive amounts of energy. According the study by Gregory Young, an architectural designer and urban planner in the Philadelphia area, each billboard consumes 30 times as much energy as the typical American household. Even though LED bulbs are extremely efficient, the signs deploy so many that their energy use is high.

Typical billboards have only one or two large lights to illuminate them at night, but require no energy during the day. Digital billboards need power for all hours of the day and therefore require cooling systems which use even more energy.

Some of these new billboards are enormous, measuring 20′x60′ (6m x 18m), and can deploy over 10,000 LED bulbs. Young’s report states that the largest digital billboards consume a staggering 323,773 kilowatts hours per year, compared to the typical household uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours per year. The cost of this amount of energy equates to a bill of over $44,000 per year (given the current kWh rate in the Philadelphia metro area).

Another major problem is the enormous amounts of electronic waste produced from spent LED bulbs. LED bulbs have a lifespan of 100,000 hours (11 years) and are recyclable. However, with rapid technological advancements, today’s LED bulbs will be obsolete. Also, there is often no mandate to reuse the bulbs, and very little monitoring exists. Wastes produced from typical billboards (paper, vinyl sheets) actually have a higher volume, but do not have the potentially toxic byproducts.

Nevertheless, digital billboards are expected to increase in numbers around the country as prices for large LED screens fall. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America projects the annual increase of large digital billboards to be several hundred per year. The rise of digital billboards will also bring about a rise in environmental, energy, and safety concerns.

Link to published report by Gregory Young.

Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.

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