Accelerating the reduction of the environmental impact of humanitarian action
@ Goran Backman on Unsplash

Tarpaulin

  • Procurement
  • Non-food items
  • Procurement
  • Non-food

Tarpaulins are among the basic items used in the construction of emergency shelters in conflict zones or areas hit by natural disasters. It is an important product for humanitarian organisations. Three organisations have joined forces to carry out an eco-design study aimed at reducing the environmental impact of tarpaulins.

Why is it important?

Plastic tarpaulins have been used in the field by humanitarian organisations since the 1980s. Every year, tens of millions of square metres of plastic sheeting are distributed to crisis-affected populations. They are used for a variety of purposes: emergency shelters, latrine covers, walls and fences (1).

Nowadays, tarpaulins are generally made of plastic, more specifically polyethylene (2). These materials can have a significant negative impact on the environment, both during their production (fossil raw materials, energy use) and at the end of their life, when the tarpaulins distributed risk polluting the local environment due to the lack of a local collection and recycling infrastructure.

What is the solution ?

Given the importance of tarpaulins to the humanitarian sector, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a project in May 2021 to design a new tarpaulin with a reduced environmental impact. The project is based on an analysis of the life cycle of the current tarpaulin, an ultraviolet (UV) test, two field surveys and a scientific study of bio sourced, biodegradable and recycled materials.

The study identified actions to reduce the carbon and environmental impact of a tarpaulin. The new tarpaulin will have a longer lifespan thanks to increased mechanical strength, as well as using less virgin materials thanks to reduced weight and the use of recycled plastics.

The UV resistance of tarpaulins is a key factor: exposure to UV light can cause rapid degradation of the tarpaulin. For example, a plastic tarpaulin purchased locally in the Democratic Republic of the Congo breaks down after just 4 months’ use, whereas the standard tarpaulin currently in use still offers 90% tensile strength after 8 years. In terms of UV resistance, the new tarpaulin should offer at least the same resistance (already very good on the standard tarpaulin).

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) also showed that effective recycling of the tarpaulin at the end of its life is the most important factor in reducing its impact on the environment. A proposal for a low-tech local recycling solution is currently being evaluated (3).

If the results of the field tests are positive, the new specifications will be used in autumn 2023.

Confirmed success in reducing environmental impact

Points of attention

  • Transport

The life cycle analysis carried out in the study assumes that the tarpaulins are shipped by sea. The impacts of transporting and distributing the tarpaulins will increase considerably if they are transported by air. Depending on the mode of transport chosen, the global warming potential can be 10 to 29 times higher (4).

  • Biodegradable and bio sourced plastics

Following the conclusions of the study, it was decided not to incorporate conventional biodegradable plastic (polyethylene) into the composition of the tarpaulins. The climatic conditions under which the tarpaulins are used are too varied and unpredictable to guarantee their durability in humanitarian contexts. Furthermore, the end of life is not controlled and in most cases will not meet the conditions of biodegradation. Bio sourced polyethylene will not be used either, as it has a higher environmental impact than fossil-based plastics in certain categories (use of resources, depletion of the ozone layer, human toxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity, photochemical oxidation, acidification and eutrophication). There is also a potential conflict between food production and the production of bio-based plastics (5).

 

Key facts

3.4%

of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to plastic production (6).

22%

reduction in CO2e emissions thanks to the use of recycled plastic and the reduction in weight (7).

50%

is the reduction in CO2e emissions that can be achieved by doubling the lifespan of a tarpaulin (8).

 

450

the lifespan of plastics in the ocean is around 450 years (9).

@Joel Friedrich on Unsplash

Good to know

  • Eco-design

The aim of eco-design is to minimise a product’s impact on the environment while meeting the needs of consumers and users. Eco-design takes environmental considerations into account throughout the life cycle of a good or service, right from the design stage. Eco-design therefore helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to the product and its impact on the environment (10). It is common to see reductions in environmental impact of between 10% and 40% on several indicators (11). Life cycle analysis is often the basis of an eco-design project.

  • Life cycle analysis

A life cycle assessment (LCA) of a product is a process for evaluating the effects of that product on the environment throughout its life. Carrying out an LCA of a product helps to optimise the use of raw materials and resources. LCA is sometimes referred to as a “cradle-to-grave” analysis. The key elements of LCA are:

  1. to identify and quantify the environmental elements involved, for example energy, raw materials consumed, CO2 emissions or waste generated;
  2. to assess the potential environmental impacts of these elements;
  3. to evaluate the options available to reduce these impacts (12).

Key actions

  • #1 Extend the period of use as far as possible

    Extend the useful life of tarpaulins by purchasing better quality tarpaulins (tensile strength and UV resistance).
  • #2 Reduce the weight

    Buy lighter tarpaulins. Be careful, however, to maintain good resistance over time (tensile strength and UV resistance).

  • #3 Incorporate recycled materials

    Choose tarpaulins made from recycled materials. The new ICRC, IFRC and UNHCR plastic tarpaulins will incorporate 15% high-quality recycled plastic as a recommendation.

  • #4 Recycle unusable tarpaulins

    Collect unused tarpaulins. Reuse those that are still in good condition. Recycle unusable tarpaulins by identifying reliable service providers, local if possible, or set up recycling projects. For example, a project to encourage the local production of corrugated plastic roofing sheets by thermoforming end-of-life tarpaulins is currently being studied by the ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR (13)

Success stories

CICR/IFRC/UNHCR: Eco-design of new environmentally friendly tarpaulins

The three organisations carried out a study analysing the life cycle of their current tarpaulin in order to design a new, more environmentally friendly one (14).

EPFL: Tarpaulins made from plant waste

At the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a programme has been set up to bring together researchers and non-governmental organisations to develop technologies that respond specifically to the conditions and needs of developing countries. One of the projects involves making tarpaulins from plant waste. Researchers have succeeded in transforming plant waste into bio sourced and biodegradable polyester. To confirm this invention, tests will be carried out with the NGO Medair in Bangladesh (15).

Tools and good practices

  • Practical guide to ecodesign, General confederation of small and medium-sized enterprises (CGPME), 2016 (FR)

    This guide looks at the main concepts of eco-design and explains what is at stake. It also provides ideas for action and testimonials to help you understand how to take action and understand the eco-design approach.

    Read here in French
  • Guide to the specification and use of plastic sheeting in humanitarian relief

    This guide provides details and explanations on the use of tarpaulin in emergency situations.

    Read here in English
  • Recycle and disposal of emergency plastic sheets by Inter Agency Standing Committee

    This guideline gives information on how to reuse, recycle and disposal plastic sheets after a humanitarian disaster, in this case with specific information for the context of Haiti.

    Read here in English
  • ISO Standard Life cycle analysis ISO14040, 2006 (EN)

    ISO 14040: 2006 describes the principles and framework of life cycle assessment (LCA), with the following phases in particular : definition of the objective and scope of the LCA, analysis of the life cycle inventory (LCI), life cycle impact assessment (LCIA), interpretation of the life cycle, reporting and critical review of the LCA, the limits of the LCA, the relationship between the phases of the LCA and the conditions for use of value choices and optional elements.

    Read here

Further reading

  • Eco-design project for tarpaulins: summary of LCA results, RISE, 2022 (EN)

    The presentation provides a summary of the methodology, assumptions and main results of the LCA of the eco-designed tarpaulin.

    Read here
  • Factsheet on life cycle analysis, EcoAct (EN)

    This document presents the methodology and use cases for life cycle analysis.

    Read here
  • Drowning in plastics - Charts on marine litter and plastic waste, United Nations Environment Programme, 2021 (EN)

    The document provides an overview of the impacts of plastic pollution. Chapter 19 deals with the advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable plastics.

    Read here
  • Guide to the characteristics of tarpaulins and its use in humanitarian appeals, Humanitarian Library, 2008 (FR)

    The document provides an operational explanation of the different uses of tarpaulins in the humanitarian sector.

    Read here

Sources

(1) QSE Working group, The development of tarpaulins, 2015 (EN) Read here

(2) Plastic Le Mag, Plastics to the rescue of the homeless, 2014 (FR), Read here

(3) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project, 2021 – 2023 (EN)

(4) RISE, Life cycle analysis of an ICRC woven PE tarpaulin, 2022 (EN)

(5) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project 2021 – 2023, Project newsletter, 2022 (EN) Read here

(6) Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Increase in plastic pollution, 2022. Read here

(7) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project 2021 – 2023, Project newsletter, 2022 (EN) Read here

(8) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project 2021 – 2023, Project newsletter, 2022 (EN) Read here

(9) Statista, Plastic can take 500 years to degrade in the oceans, 2018 (EN). Read here

(10) Eco-design of products, French Ministry of Ecological Transition, 2023 (FR). Read here

(11) Eco-design of products, French Ministry of Ecological Transition, 2023 (FR). Read here

(12) European Environment Agency, Life Cycle Analysis (EN). Read here

(13) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project 2021 – 2023, Project newsletter, 2022 (EN) Read here

(14) ICRC/IFRC/UNHCR, Eco-designed tarpaulin project 2021 – 2023, Project Newsletter, 2022 (EN) Read here

(15) EPFL, Practical technologies for the global South – 2020 (EN) Read here