Aid organizations helping refugees and victims of natural disasters around the world use tarps for shelter. Tarps have evolved over the years from material that used to tear and disintegrate in a matter of months to a more durable material that can last for years.
A Danish company called Monarflex held a patent on the eyelets used in high-quality tarps and was able to charge monopoly prices. To save money, aid agencies often used cheaper tarps that fell apart quickly. One report estimated that the practice cost $10 million per year.
In 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders wrote their own specifications for tarps to be used in humanitarian aid and put French engineer Patrick Oger in charge of collecting details on size, strength, color, and thickness. Oger became friends with an engineer at Monarflex who taught him the science behind plastics.
The tarps that USAID was using had black fibers running in one direction and clear fibers running perpendicular to them. They could be torn easily in one direction, but not in another. Oger figured out what was causing tarps to fail.
The engineer for Monarflex explained that rubber is naturally white, but tires have carbon black pigment that absorbs visible and UV light that breaks down plastic. The black fibers in the tarps were protecting the plastic, but clear fibers were weaker.
Black tarps could resist damage, but they would have made shelters unbearably hot. Oger pitched tents in different colors and found that white tents remained cooler. Standard tarps used by aid agencies are now made with black fibers that are painted white on both sides.
Oger also compared the durability of braided and woven tarps by tying small rectangles onto poles and allowing them to blow in the wind. Woven tarps held up better.
Oger eliminated the eyelets patented by Monarflex and developed a new band-based fastening system that is more flexible and easier to manufacture. That also reduced the cost since the tarps could be produced without Monarflex’s patent.
Since 1996, the Red Cross and other relief organizations have used millions of tarps developed according to Oger’s specifications. They are inexpensive and have saved both lives and money.