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What Will Happen to All Those Beto Signs?

The election cleanup in Texas could take awhile

Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke went all in on yard signs as he ran for Senate. What’s next for all that plastic and poly-coated paper? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke went all in on yard signs as he ran for Senate. What’s next for all that plastic and poly-coated paper? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Campaign signs are like Halloween decorations; what went up must come down. In Texas, where losing Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke blitzed the state with his iconic logo, it might take awhile.

“Just driving around, the signs are still everywhere,” graphic designer Tony Casas said Thursday. “He inspired a lot of people, and a lot of people still feel that way after the election.”

The Democrat may have come up short on Election Day, but voters aren’t in any hurry to rid their front yards of the black-and-white logo. That means something to Casas, because he’s the one who designed it. 

The “Beto for Senate” signs were already memorable — and just spicy enough to conjure up visions of Whataburger ketchup. In the days since the election, supporters have gotten creative, crossing out the “for Senate” part and writing in their own ideas: Beto for Texas. Beto for 2020. And yes, Beto for president.

Casas has seen that happening in El Paso, where he’s a partner at Stanton Street, a design firm O’Rourke founded years ago.

Halfway across the state, the local Democratic Party in Austin jumped on the “Beto for 2020” trend with a fundraising drive. Pay $10, and you get a vinyl sticker that fits perfectly over your existing sign. “Good Democrats recycle,” goes the sales pitch from the Travis County party. “Upgrade your Beto sign and let him know we’re ready for his next campaign — whatever it is!”

It was a big year for yard signs all over Texas. “There are a lot of them,” said Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston.

Just the Beto signs alone could probably fill a fleet of dumpsters, but who’s counting? Apparently not the candidate. O’Rourke’s campaign didn’t track how many it sold or gave away, a spokesman told the Texas Tribune in August, even as its yard game appeared to outpace that of incumbent Ted Cruz.

Add that unknown number of signs to all the others littered around Texas — plugging the three candidates who ran for governor, or the dozens who ran for Congress, or the hundreds who ran for state Legislature — and it starts to add up. So what exactly happens to them once Election Day has come and gone?

Many end up in landfills. “Candidates are more and more frequently choosing to get recyclable signs, but they aren’t all recyclable, and very few people know that,” Powers said.

Coroplast was one material of choice for O’Rourke; it’s a lightweight corrugated plastic widely accepted for recycling. A 2-foot-wide Beto yard sign, complete with ground stakes, was selling for $10 on the campaign’s online store until right before the election.

Another common sign material is poly-coated paper — think along the lines of a milk carton — which can pose a recycling challenge.

And what about the vinyl add-ons they’re selling in Austin? Sticking something like that on a campaign sign wouldn’t pass muster with facilities there, according to a fact sheet distributed by the city government — all the more reason for supporters to hope they’ll be reusing instead of recycling.

Holding on to signs for multiple election cycles isn’t a new idea. “If a candidate is somebody who wants to run again, we’ll store them. If they’re not interested in running again, then they get tossed,” said Pat Burns, who chairs a chapter of the Texas Democratic Party about an hour outside of Houston.

He believes yard signs are particularly important in rural areas “because they are a really good indicator of what your neighbor is thinking, and out here we tend to know who our neighbors are.”

For those neighbors who worry the signs could stay up indefinitely, that depends on where you live. While every state is different, in Texas a patchwork of rules means that most will have to come down eventually — at least until 90 days before the next election.

Friday is the deadline to remove any campaign signs on private property that are visible from Texas roads, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. Homeowner’s associations can’t force you to take them down any sooner than that, even if they can stop you from adding “nonstandard decorative components,” such as balloons or blinking lights.

With deadlines looming, some people think fast. A professor in New Hampshire collects leftover campaign signs and turns them into iPad holders for the disabled. Powers and her colleagues at the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition like to add binder clips and use them as clipboards. She’s even seen city workers turn them into an “astounding” holiday tree topped with a bright orange star. “It was really cool looking,” she said.

One candidate for state Senate went a different route. After his fifth and final losing bid for office, Cecil Webster had a few 8-foot-wide pieces of unwanted political plastic. After being refused by his local recycling center, he posted a Facebook message asking for help.

Help came in the shape of an alpaca. A farmer near him was searching for a water-resistant material to put on the floor of his barn to keep his alpacas dry. Before that, Webster briefly considered burning his oversized campaign signs, but decided against it.

“You don’t really burn them, you simply melt them. What you end up with is this big glob at the very end, so then you still have, ‘OK, how do I get rid of this big glob?’” Webster said. “In all honesty, I never thought about that when I first got into this business.”

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