This Ginormous Poem Sucks Pollution From the Sky

A building-size billboard of British poet and playwright Simon Armitage's 'In Praise of Air' has an eco-friendly purpose.

(Photo: 'In Praise of Air'/Vimeo)

May 20, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Forget those Chipotle literary cups with original short stories by Toni Morrison and Jonathan Safran Foer. Our highbrow cousins across the pond are using poetry to kill smog. That’s the idea behind an innovative partnership between the University of Sheffield and award-winning British author and poet Simon Armitage. They’ve teamed up to create a gigantic billboard that features an original poem by the author and does double duty in an eco-friendly way.

The poster, which has been installed on one of the university’s buildings, measures 32.8 feet wide and 65.6 feet long and is covered with the text of Armitage’s aptly titled poem "In Praise of Air." Along with thought-provoking stanzas like “I write in praise of air. I was six or five / When a conjurer opened my knotted fist / and I held in my palm the whole of the sky. / I've carried it with me ever since,” the banner sports a hi-tech coating of titanium dioxide. While passersby read Armitage’s ode to the atmosphere and contemplate its deep meaning, the billboard’s surface uses sunlight and oxygen to eliminate pollution particles.

Don’t go thinking this is just some twee literary project. This one poster can eat the emissions equivalent of 20 cars per day, and the coating works for an entire year. It’s also pretty cost-effective—the toxin-removing exterior only added about $168 to the banner’s production costs.

This isn’t the first time a smog-eating billboard has been dreamed up by a university. Earlier this month, UTEC, an engineering college in Lima, Peru, came up with a billboard that uses humidity to remove particulate matter from the air. If the technology is there and it’s cost-effective, shouldn’t all billboards be in pollution-killing mode?

That’s what Tony Ryan, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor for science, thinks too. “If every banner, flag, or advertising poster in the country [used the pollution-eating technology], we'd have much better air quality,” Ryan told The Guardian. “The countless thousands of poster sites that are selling us cars beside our roads could be cleaning up emissions at the same time."

As for Armitage, he told The Guardian he "enjoyed working with the scientists and the science, trying to weave the message into the words, wanting to collaborate both conceptually and with the physical manifestation of the work.”

As we’ve said before, if we’re going to have to look at sexist American Apparel advertisements, let's make them put in some work and help us breathe a little easier.