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'Road spam' is my name for those obnoxious, mostly illegal plastic signs that fly-by-night businesses use to get virtually free advertising in public places like roadways and intersections.  It makes a useful building material. Garden Railroading  Primer Articles: All about getting a Garden Railroad up and running well Garden Train Store: Index to train, track, and other products for Garden Railroading
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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

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Recycle Road Spam

When I was an indoor model railroader, I built entire communities out of cardboard. Unfortunately, building materials that work well outdoors tend to be a little more expensive than used cereal boxes. Don't fret; this article will tell you how to harvest free weather-proof building materials and beautify your community at the same time.

Every spring our streetcorners and telephone poles sprout a fresh crop of illegal, obnoxious signage from fly-by-night businesses. Almost all of these are now using a material called corrugated plastic or "vertically fluted" plastic. As far as I can tell, it holds up well against most weather, even without additional UV protection. With a coat of paint, it should last as long as any other material you are using outdoors. You can buy it in the store for a few dollars a sheet, but to me, it's better if I can get it for free, and, at the same time, make my neighborhood look less like a clearing-house for illegal and semi-legal enterprises.

But Doesn't "Free Speech" Give Fly-By-Night Businesses A Right To Clutter Our Neighborhoods and Roadways?

No. Here are some things to think about.

  • Road spammers deface public property - Your tax dollars are being spent to replace telephone poles they have damaged and to pay public workers to remove and dispose of their mess.
  • Road spammers work in darkness - They do their spamming in the middle of the night because they are usually breaking the law and they don't want to get busted or recognized.
  • The legitimate businesses on this street keep their lots clean, their buildings painted, and their lawns mowed. But they don't seem to mind folks from other neighborhoods trashing their street with illegal signage.Road spammers avoid accountability - they stay anonymous because they don't want citizens groups, zoning commissioners, IRS agents, or police officers tracking them down.
  • Road spammers cheapen neighborhoods - Road spammers almost never live in or near the neighborhoods they trash up. Some even live in other cities or states. What gives them the right to trash your town or street?
  • Some road spam promotes scams, including con games, identity theft schemes, and worse.

Does that mean that everyone who puts up a fluted plastic sign on a street corner deserves a criminal investigation, or at least a public inquiry. No. Here are some "sort-of" exceptions.

  • This Dayton-area sign from a Dayton-area company was eventually taken down by a community clean-up group. Works for me. The sign was illegal but the business is not, as far as I know.A few otherwise legal local businesses DO use illegal signage from time to time. Frankly, I don't get as incensed about that as I do about the people coming in from out of town and spamming our streetcorners with fly-by-night scams. Usually the zoning folks clean these up on their annual or semi-annual rounds.
  • Election signs are legal to stick into the ground on "public property" before elections, but illegal to leave up after elections.
  • Most communities besides Oakwood, Ohio allow you to put up temporary signs such as garage sale signs and real estate open house signs on public lands as long as they don't stay up indefinitely.

The next time you see obnoxious road spam in your neighborhood, don't just think about an intrusive advertisement in a public place, think about a fly-by-night business operator (or worse yet, scam operator), throwing a ladder, a box of nails and a stack of signs, and a couple of friends into a van, driving to your neighborhood (or state) in search of new victims, er, customers, and trusting that your zoning and law enforcement people will be too busy - and your fellow citizens too timid - to clean up their litter.

Harvesting Road Spam

That said, many folks and even some police officers, don't realize that the signs are illegal and that you are doing a legal public service by removing them. (The strangest case I've heard of involved a pacifist church that wouldn't let anyone take down a "concealed carry course" sign on their corner because they would rather be mistakenly associated with handgun proliferation than to hurt the feelings of whoever put up the sign.) So before you start on a crusade, you might want to contact your local zoning board and ask them if they have a problem with you picking up litter and taking down road spam in your neighborhood. They usually won't, but this way you can write down their name. Then if a homeowner, business owner, or police officer gets nervous about you removing an eyesore, you can say "I talked to so-and-so at the zoning board, and he said it was okay." On the other hand, the zoning folks might want you to wear orange vests or to work through a citizen's group or something, and that's okay, too. Either way, explain that you will be recycling the plastic in an earth-friendly manner.

The yellow sign on this post is almost twelve feet off the ground and uses special nails to make it harder to remove.  This kind is best removed by a neighborhood committe or some such who can assist with the ladder and watch each other's backs. Also, some road spam is more obnoxious than others. If a legitimate local business with a local telephone # puts up an illegal sign in an obnoxious place that's not in my neighborhood, you can usually trust the zoning folks or that neighborhood's "clean-up committee" take care of it on their normal (usually semi-annual) rounds. However 1-800 # or web-site-only signs send a clear message that they have no part or interest in your community except a business plan that depends on devaluing your neighborhood and exploiting your neighbors.

You'll notice that many road spammers use special nails and step-ladders to make their signs inconvenient to remove from telephone poles. Most people reading this article will never get around to removing one piece of road spam, much less putting a ladder, a pry bar, and a nephew in their truck and taking these down. But that's okay - this kind of sign is probably better done as part of a "neighborhood watch" or other citizen's committee anyway. Also, if by some rare chance, the person who put the sign up is awake during daylight hours and sees you taking it down, you don't want to seem to be "acting alone."

A certain furniture store in Anderson, Indiana proved just how well corrugated plastic holds up by using the same 'going out of business' signs (inhabited and uninhabited) for nearly two years. Click for bigger photo.Finally, it is not a good idea to try to harvest road spam that people are wearing. It IS legal to stand around WEARING road spam, even if it is tacky, and a pretty nasty job in bad weather.

Using Corrugated Plastic Panels

Let's say that you have somehow acquired one or more corrugated plastic panels. What can you do with them?

Well, the truth is that they're tricky to cut and paint doesn't always stick to them very well.

This is a detail from a photo Wil Davis took of my railroad in 2003. Click to see more of the photo.On the plus side, they have a lot of structural integrity in one direction, and they hold up to just about any kind of weather. Also, their "rippled" appearance provides an interesting texture that is suitable for "metal" factory roofs, and "wooden" external walls.

Applications: I'll be honest, I have yet to use corrugated plastic panels for a whole building. But I have used them to replace roofs that were destroyed by falling trees, and to provide "filler" on buildings that were missing a wall or part of a wall. The grain elevator at the right lost its roof when a tree fell on it in the spring of 2003. I replaced it in a few minutes using corrugated plastic that I sprayed gray then sprayed very lightly with rust primer. Sorry I don't have a better photo.

This Fischer Price fire house got a repaint and a new garage door in the front.The corrugated plastic This building started as a Fischer Price fire house. With a new paint job, a Lucite garage door, and signage from our Business and Station Signs page, it became a tolerable garage. But the back was still open (so kids could reach in). I closed it with a piece of corrugated plastic panel about four years ago, and it's been fine ever since, although I did have to reglue it once. I think I used a silicone product both times.

In the interest of "garden Don't toss your vegetable trays this spring, especially if they have a pattern that you can use for window mullions.railroading on a budget", I would like to try to using "found" corrugated plastic panels to build a building for almost nothing. I'm thinking about a cheap cedar frame (from leftover trestle materal), corrugated plastic for the walls and roof, and window mullions cut from vegetable trays. Stay tuned. :-)

Cutting: I have had reasonable luck cutting "with the grain" by scoring with a utility knife, and eventually cutting through. Cutting against the grain is harder. I have a small tinsnip-sort of craft scissor that does the job. A friend in Canada says he can cut it with an industrial-strength paper cutter (the kind you have to watch your fingers with). I may try a very fine blade on my jigsaw next time I need to cut a bunch, and report back to you.

Painting: Sadly, these don't hold paint very well. I've had better luck with leftover Duron-brand super-acrylic house paint than with spray paint (which I usually use for everything).

Gluing: I've found a couple off-brand glues that hold this, but nothing I can recommend 100%. Silicon adhesive holds it somewhat. Kevin Strong, a frequent Garden Railways contributor says he's had carpenters' glue melt corrugated plastic just enough to get it to sag in wierd ways overnight. So test any glue you want to use beforehand. We'll get back to you when we find something we feel is completely safe to use on this. In the meantime, it IS very easy to tack onto things.

Tell us about your projects

If you've used road spam (or at least fluted plastic signage boards) to build a garden railroad project, please share it with our readers. Contact me with details and photographs.

Reader Response

Helynn, of Humbird, Wisconsin writes:

Unfortunately, we don't have those kinds of signs tacked onto posts/fences/etc. in our area. However, a local convenience store uses large signs made of that material for advertising beer, soda pop and other items. I asked them what they did with the old signs and they said they just tossed them in the trash. So, now, they're saving them for me. I stop in once a week or so and pick up whatever they have.

I have some signs that are about 2' x 3' and others that are 3' x 7' and a few in between. I'm hoping to make a station with some of them but, that's a winter project.

Anyway, thought others might like to know about the convenience stores having these signs.

Thanks, again, for a great newsletter and website. I visit it often!

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