Make politics environment-friendly: dealing with street banners

The general election is over, leaving winners and losers, but also loads of wasted street banners. These banners are highly effective media to get messages across to us; with their striking colors and fonts printed on large pieces of hard-wearing synthetic fabric, hardly anyone can fail to recognize them. For a couple of weeks, the streets have been inundated with these banners, promoting politicians’ campaign promises. Even after the election, politicians have more banners hung to express their gratitude for being elected or to apologize for falling short of our expectations.

The voices of politicians do need to be heard by us, as it is our duty to vote for them and to contribute to the actuality of our democracy. However, it is questionable whether the rampant use of banners should be allowed to continue for this cause. The streets are flooded with excessive amounts of banners, which degenerate the city environment in the following ways.

First, they compromise the street view and the city experience. High-frequency advertising through banners does help messages stick in our minds, but it is often too aggressive. The conspicuous colors and substantial sizes of banners hold us back from enjoying the harmonious view of the cityscape. Plus, they’re like repetitive online advertisements that we can’t even skip: we are likely to become fatigued by the bombardment of information we didn’t even ask for. A simple walk down the street thereby becomes more and more overwhelming.

Moreover, it’s been pointed out that the banners pose a potential threat to our safety. As huge panels tied around trees or fences are meant to occupy street space, some block pedestrians’ sight and hinder drivers from properly reading what’s happening on the road. This has led to inconveniences and even injuries.

Last but not least, these banners contaminate the ecosystem. They are made out of polyester, and most of them are buried or burnt after their one-time use. It takes more than a century or two for banners to disintegrate, and during the process, they leave microplastics behind. When burnt, they emit toxic fumes. Despite the critical implications on the environment, the number of wasted banners in previous general elections has escalated from 13,980 in 2016 to 30,580 in 2020 and is projected to be even higher this year.

The national assembly has acknowledged the problem and has made some efforts to reduce the amount of political banners. The amendment of the Outdoor Advertisement Act went into force this January, making progress in stipulating where to allow and where to ban banners, as well as the number of banners that may be used per party.

However, while this amendment caps the number of banners issued by political parties, it doesn’t restrain an individual politician from hanging banners of their own. With this loophole, there could still be a flood of banners produced by individual politicians filling in for their parties. We might have to go through another holiday with banners hung over every corner, saying nothing more than “Enjoy your Chuseok” or “Happy New Year,” so that politicians may give off a friendly impression. We should not risk environmental hazards so politicians may serve their own interests in gaining recognition. More serious change is needed in the current unsustainable use of banners in politics.

Then, what can be done in the future to preserve the environment while maintaining the integrity of our democratic practices? Clearly, the usage of banners must be reduced. This could mainly be done by passing legislation that encourages politicians to use other media to promote their political messages. Replacing banners with online promotions could be a good alternative, as online promotions don’t take up physical space. They wouldn’t be an eyesore or create blind zones, and this would help us reduce plastic waste.

If so, why don’t we replace all physical banners with digitized ones? Turns out, physical banners do have qualities that make them hard to substitute. They’re affordable, easily recognizable, and are accessible to nearly everyone. However, even if banners are a necessity, there should still be supplementary measures aside from just reducing the number of them produced for political use.

It is possible that we make banners out of eco-friendly material. Starting this year, Gimhae, a city in Gyeongnam province, is producing banners for the local government using eco-friendly fabrics, such as biodegradable polyester and a grain-based textile. Both kinds of fabrics decompose in landfills within 3 years, making substantial progress from ordinary polyester’s centuries-long degradation and its harmful byproducts.

There is also a way to upcycle banners. Upcycling refers to reusing trash to make something of higher value. Starting from 2021, Yecheon in Gyeongbuk province, has made sacks out of political banners. Not only is this an achievement for the local sustainability initiatives, but it has also helped the local government to save its budget for disposing of the banners and purchasing sacks. There’s also a project called “Vote for Earth” to turn the election banners into windbreakers, making the best out of the sturdy polyester. With our endless creativity, upcycling could certainly go a long way.

Cutting back on banners is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed for the sake of our daily lives and that of future generations. Political practices, above everything, need to be environmentally sustainable; they’re supposed to protect the people and secure their well-being in the world. For a sustainable democracy, we will have to go step by step, first by publicly discussing and addressing the liability of political banners.