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Tarpaulin - The Unsung Hero

17th Nov 2017

Royal Marine Fixes Tarpaulin on Damaged Roof

A Royal Marine Fixes an emergency tarpaulin to a damaged roof in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma Picture: MOD Press Release

The humble tarpaulin is truly a versatile product. You probably use yours for all manner of jobs around the home, garden or in industry. But there’s a whole other dimension to the tarp that makes a real difference in the world. Wherever there is disaster, mayhem or catastrophe you’ll find the tarp. In fact just ask any aid, humanitarian or disaster worker and they will tell you that the ubiquitous tarp, is in fact the unsung hero of aid work, and one of the most potent secret weapons for relieving human misery in their arsenal! …And it has a fascinating history too.

When aid workers and organisations such as the Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) first started using plastic sheeting en masse for relief and aid work back in the 1970s, they used agricultural film, but that wasn’t reinforced and was extremely fragile. So they moved to using cheap plastic tarps of the kind found in supermarkets. However they found that these would deteriorate rapidly. Lots of testing was done and it was found that the culprit in making the tarps deteriorate so disastrously was UV light.

Patrick Oger who had been tasked with procuring millions of square metres of tarp for MSF, found that the tarps were constructed of a crossweave of black fibres running in one direction and clear fibres running in the other. He found that these tarps were stronger in one direction than they were in the other. After a little while they would deteriorate and easily tear in one direction, but not in the other. Puzzling this conundrum he turned to a plastics engineer for advice, who told him the following:

Tarp Usage in Disaster Zones:

  1. Roof repairs
  2. Complete emergency shelters: They've saved countless lives by shielding people from the rain, wind, cold, sun - and by being used to compartmentalise and segragate to prevent the spread of disease
  3. Fences and flooring
  4. Used to dry rice
  5. Building latrines
  6. Formed in to bags, blankets, and even trousers and umbrellas

Incredibly versatile, cheap, light and waterproof - a tarp is an essential part of any disaster relief kit. They are used to provide emergency temporary shelters to millions, but as you can see above - they've also been put to many other inventive uses as well.

“Do you know why tires are black? Rubber is naturally white, but tires contain carbon black, a pigment that absorbs all visible light as well as UV light—which breaks down plastic. The pigment in the tarp's black fibers was absorbing the UV rays and protecting the plastic. No such luck for the clear fibers, though.”

So the solution it would seem, was black tarpaulins, right? True, but Oger saw a problem with that:

"If you have a house, nobody is going to want to paint it with black paint. People don’t live in black houses. …Plus, black tents get sweltering in hot climates.”

After a series of experiments Oger confirmed that the best solution was an interwoven tarpaulin comprised of black fibres, with a white coating painted on top. Over the next 3 years and lots more research and experimentation Oger developed a set of specifications for the ideal tarp for humanitarian and relief work purposes.

As a result, since 1996 organisations including The Red Cross, UNHCR, UNICEF, Oxfam and of course Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have given out millions of tarps manufactured to those specs. Other coloured coatings are now used also, but the black UV absorbing fibres at the heart of the tarpaulins are still the basis.

Across the world in hundreds of situations tarpaulins have been used to patch damaged roofs, provide temporary shelters and a whole myriad of other uses (see our info panel for some of the diverse uses of tarpaulins in disaster areas).