Tarps and outdoor work go together like a cheese and pickle in a sandwich. They are such a useful and versatile resource. I have blogged about them many times. Yet the ugly truth is that they are large sheets of plastic. We need to be re-thinking whether we should still be purchasing this product and if so in what form, and how to care better for and extend the life of the tarps we have.
Can tarpaulins be recycled?
At the time of writing this post there are no facilities in my local area for recycling tarps. They go to landfill. Recycled tarpaulins not widespread or easy to find. From a quick Google search it would appear there are some but not many products made from recycled tarps. I am hopeful that this will change. One or two manufacturers of plastic tarp in China are beginning to use greater quantities of recycled plastic but a significant percentage of the tarp remains new plastic.
Are there alternatives to plastic tarpaulins?
Yes. In my youth, canvas tarps and tents were the norm. They are heavy weight, considerably more expensive and do need more care. If they get wet, they need to be thoroughly dried to avoid mould and mildew causing them to rot. It is possible to buy tarps that have been chemically treated to make them water resistant (but not waterproof), but I’m not sure about the environmental impact of such treatment. Others are treated with wax but it is not clear if this is an synthetic oil-based or vegetable-based product. Canvas is usually manufactured from cotton. A quick search will show many online videos about making canvas or even cotton sheets water-repellent through waxing processes or dunking material in boiled linseed oil.
I learned how to kayak in a canoe that my father had made from a wooden frame covered with canvas. It was re-painted with gloss paint on an annual basis to keep it waterproof and we had to be very careful when stepping in and out of the vessel to avoid scraping it on the ground or lakebed. However there are also environmental issues around cotton production. To-date, I can’t find an organic canvas tarp through an online search. Again, this may well change in the future.
If you must buy a plastic tarp, go for the best quality you can afford, so that it lasts as long as possible. Be aware that many material tarps are still manufactured from plastic derivatives, usually polyester with a PU coating. Muddy Faces stock a range of tarps and this includes canvas tarp. Outdoor People now stock a DD Hammock tarp made from recycled polyester which is no more expensive than others in their range. So options do exist to make better choices.
Extending the life of a plastic tarp
The good news is that we can make a difference and look after the plastic tarps we currently have. The longer we can keep them from going to landfill, the better the chances are in time of there being recycling options in the future.
- Try to avoid having a tarp up on a windy day as the eyelets will be put under stress. Alternatively add in ball bungees or other elastic that ensures a bit of give to hold the tarps in place.
2. If your eyelets become damaged, the tarp can still be used. Take a pine cone or other small lightweight object. Put this in the spot on the tarp you want to attach a line. Put the line around the object so that it is covered and pull tight. You can use this technique on any material.
3. If you get rips or tears, then using duct tape or special tarp tape can be used to mend them. This are still plastic derivatives but it’s better than chucking out a whole tarp.
4. If a tarp gets really worn, then you can cut out shapes and holes to make maths tarps as shown below. My maths tarps have continued to last well. I’ve just had to replace the duct tape edging.
5. The cut out tarp can be used for patching other tarps. So keep hold of your old tarps for this purpose.
The technique I use for making colourful patches is based upon a kite making technique which I have shown here. The trick is to use good quality tape to attach the patches and to reinforce on both sides. I’ve used old bags and even bubble wraps as patches too. These have a shorter shelf life but it’s still a good re-use of a plastic item. You can also see similar techniques used for dance resources too that have been made from plastic bags.
Any other ideas?
A lot of other things can be attached to tarp to add play value. One of the things that works particularly well is scraps of bubble wrap. Whilst many companies are much better at providing recyclable packaging, a surprising number still use bubble wrap.
- Children find the experience of walking on bubble wrap and popping it with their fingers very interesting. It’s particularly good on cold days outside as the bubble wrap is insulating.
- The addition of water also changes the play. The water fills the air bubbles and the children continue to explore… often discovering the joy of making mini fountains.
- The rolling and swooshing and shaking of water also is fascinating and very different to a blank canvas… er I mean tarp…!
I would love to know your thoughts about tarp, possibilities for re-use and how this adds, extends or develops the play that emerges. Many thanks – Juliet.
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