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The humanitarian tarpaulin
For MSF’s logisticians, the humble plastic tarpaulin is an indispensable piece of kit, used to make everything from fencing to guy ropes. Former MSF-er Patrick Oger describes how he came to be tasked with designing the perfect humanitarian tarp.
"I was a working as a mechanic in France, when a friend who worked for MSF asked me to help convert a city bus into a mobile clinic so they could bring healthcare to homeless people in Marseille. It was an exciting job, the people were friendly and the ambience was great.
I met logisticians coming back from the field and heard their stories. I felt I’d found a second family in MSF somehow, so I went with MSF to Sudan, as a mechanic, and then to Malawi and Kenya. I had never travelled before. It was an immense experience and I discovered the world.
When I returned to France, I got a job at MSF Logistique in Bordeaux, and was given the task of procuring millions of square metres of plastic sheeting.
When people’s homes have been destroyed, plastic sheeting is a fast and easy way to create an emergency shelter – to shield them from the rain, the sun, the cold, to protect them from major disease and offer them some privacy.
As a logistician, plastic tarpaulin is indispensable – and not just for shelters.
You can use it to make fencing or walls for latrines; you can spread it on the ground when you are sorting out emergency food rations; you can use it to cover the food when you’re fumigating against insects.
I’ve even seen it made into guy ropes for a large tent, as it’s extremely strong, with very high tensile strength.
But it wasn’t always so dependable. When aid organisations first started using plastic sheeting in the 1970s, they used agricultural film, which wasn’t reinforced and was very fragile.
They went on to use the kind of cheap plastic tarps you can buy in a supermarket. They cost just 20 cents per square metre – but they tear easily and the polyethylene is very sensitive to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, so they degrade very fast. After just a couple of weeks in South Sudan, you find the plastic has turned into powder.
However, there was one Danish company making very high quality tarpaulins out of thick plastic with braided reinforcement inside, with plastic eyelets every metre. But the problem was the price – they cost US$1.5 per square metre – which is a lot when you need one million square metres.
We started from scratch
We couldn’t find competitors for their tarpaulins, because the product was under patent so we couldn’t copy their design.
So, along with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, we decided to start from scratch and write our own specification, which we would take to the international market so companies could bid to manufacture it.
As I was in charge of plastic sheeting, and had studied technology as a mechanic designer, I was given the job to write a spec for the perfect plastic tarp.
I did plenty of testing with different plastics. I asked our logisticians in the field to send me back pieces of plastic, along with information about what they had been used for, for how long, and how much sunlight they had been exposed to. With support from laboratories, I was able to extract the technical information.
Black is the colour
The colour was significant. I noticed that one of the tarps I tested tore easily in one direction, but not in the other. It was woven out of a mixture of black and white fibres, and I discovered that while the white fibres were weak, the black ones kept their strength.
The reason for this was that the black fibres had absorbed the UV rays in sunlight, and prevented them from degrading the fabric. Black fibres also increased the opacity of the fabric, keeping shelters cooler.
So black it had to be. Making black plastic is easy and cheap – you mix it with carbon black, which is similar to soot. But psychologically a black shelter is not nice to use, so we decided to coat the plastic with another colour.
We tried blue, green, grey, red, transparent, aluminium. When I tested them, I discovered that white offered most protection against the sunlight to reduce the temperature inside the shelter.
So I designed a tarp made of black fibres, for high opacity and UV resistance, but coated on both sides with white.
The size was important too. To build a basic shelter – a simple ridge tent with two poles that is two metres high at the ridge and has a footprint four metres wide – the minimum size of tarp you need is four by six metres.
After three years, the research ended, and I finalised the specification. We found companies to manufacture the tarps in China and Korea, and the cost came in at just 40 cents per square metre for a high quality product. It is now also produced in India, Pakistan and Kenya.
And this is the tarp that MSF uses now – all the large organisations use it. I use one myself – to cover my woodpile.
Hats, raincoats and bags
I’ve seen them made into hats and raincoats. In Haiti I’ve seen them made into big sacks to collect recycled plastic, as they are easy to stitch and very strong. The most amazing use I’ve seen was in Congo, where people pulled apart the durable black fibres and wove them into money bags.
In the local markets, these tarps have a high value compared to other tarpaulins – which is always a good sign.
Now I’m working on designing a new type of family tent for use in emergencies. What material are we using? Why, the best material in the world – the plastic tarpaulin we developed!"