Billboards and Tarps Nerd Session

Using Billboards for Tarps


Using discarded billboards for tarps wasn’t our idea. We saw refugees using them, and unlike the standard shelter tarps, these lasted for years and not months. To be clear, if the world has tarp experts, it’s these families. They’re forced to rely on these thin membranes for years on end. Every Shelter’s role here is to expand and demonstrate the relevance of this approach globally and to lay the groundwork to scale this approach to reach as many families as possible.

In 2020, we prototyped and tested locally. We even found ourselves positioned to help over 11,000 US disaster victims because of the groundwork we laid during the pandemic. In the process, we repurposed over 92 tons of plastic while offsetting the need for virgin material to be deployed.

In 2021, we will pilot this material in 2 different refugee camps. We hope to partner with organizations representing diversity in both culture and climate to see where this approach is most effective. Secondly, we’ll pilot the local collection and manufacturing of the material. Ultimately we hope to, like our flooring, root it deeply in the community that is hosting refugees. If we can pull it off, we even hope to pay refugees to sew tarps that other refugees will rely on, thus incorporating them in the economy of the goods produced.

Billboard tarps are a much-needed change for shelter tarping for refugees. It lasts longer, is locally sourceable, and is much more sustainable than alternatives. Stay tuned this year as we pilot both the material and the ability to sew these tarps in the settings where they’re most needed!

The Story and Context Behind Every Shelter's Billboard Tarp

In 2018, Nicole and I were on a site visit in Lebanon with a partner when we happened across a community that used billboards for tarps instead of the traditional tarps. We, like many reading this, saw billboards regularly but gave them no second thought. We didn’t know anything about the industry, the material itself, or the opportunities that awaited us.

We only knew what these families told us that these billboards were holding up two years into use. Compared to existing alternatives that lasted only 3-6 months at a time, these families were onto something big!

That was remarkable to us. We were not focused on tarps at the time but knew from having spent time in the field that the tarps most families received only lasted a few months before they started to leak and deteriorate. We formed Every Shelter to scale up the impact and work of Emergency Floor, but also to tackle more challenges faced by refugees who rely on shelters for their homes. The tarp is arguably the single most important product they will rely on, and the current approach isn’t working; it’s a mismatch of durability and duration of use.

The Tarp Context

The refugee relief community, organized and directed primarily through the United Nations and its specialized agencies, attempts to globalize and standardize refugee goods. There are three officially recognized tarps in the official catalog of acceptable goods – all three variants of the same base technology. Buckle up; this article is about to get nerdy.

The Existing Solutions

The UN-sanctioned tarps are woven products made from virgin, black High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) coated on both sides with a white Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – an unrecyclable plastic film. The black layer blocks light from emerging from the shelters at night time, protecting inhabitants from “shadowing” – the phenomenon that occurs when the light source is brighter inside the tent than the light is outside of the tent. Without a light-blocking black layer, you run into privacy issues. For example:

Now imagine being alone at night in your shelter and wanting to change clothes, knowing that anyone walking past can watch you do so in silhouette – no thanks. Privacy and protection issues abound.

The white layers allow for two things:

  • White is helpful from a thermal standpoint, reflecting the hot sun. Some studies show up to a 5-10° difference on hot days inside the shelter when a reflective white layer is present.

  • The white provides for more legible branding opportunities for the relief agencies. I won’t comment here on my feelings about this practice (they’re not good feelings), but in the age of drone photography, this has never been more important to these agencies to self-promote.

The problem comes down to sourcing and durability.


Specifications ensure a high standardization level, which means the tarp a refugee family receives in Bangladesh is substantially identical to the one a family receives in the Central African Republic. If the product is good, the agencies can be confident that this product serves families well globally.

However, every decision, especially when globalized, has an abundance of unintended consequences. This tarp has evolved to be highly specialized in a very cost-constrained environment. Highly specialized and cost-constrained has served to create massive barriers of entry to competition. Put another way, only those who were already producing the tarps can compete for the massive contracts to supply them.

In fact, if you scour the publicly available tenders on the UN websites, you’ll typically see the same three companies being awarded the largest contracts. Tracking back a bit further, these same three companies have won these same tenders for decades. Tarps are not manufactured close to the need but are global products shipped worldwide and stored in large warehouses ready to be deployed. This stockpiling and prepositioning is prudent and necessary for emergency response to immediate crises (such as natural disasters), but for protracted crises where displacement lasts for years on end, it has become a burden. Because it’s unlikely that a local or small company can meet the specifications and the cost requirements, there is no entry point for competition or localizing the solution.


Globalized tarps do not last long enough. Though the relief community views these as “emergency provisions” (translation: only intended to be used for a short period of time while more long-term solutions can be identified), families often rely on their tarps for years at a time. In many contexts, the host government is hostile to provisions that give the semblance of “permanence.” Consequently, tarps become the de facto non-permanent/permanent solution, forcing families for decades to utilize tarps for their walls and roofs. Though the specification reads that the official tarps last 12 months, field usage points to durations much closer to 6 months or less. This is a gross mismatch of durability and timeline of need in many cases.

One of the issues inherent to these tarps is the fact that they are woven. Perhaps an article for another time, but tarps often come with reinforcement around the edges where users are intended to secure the tarp to the structure. In reality, these edge connections are often not sufficient, and families often feel the need to secure their tarps to their shelter mid-span, not just at the edge. Those connections are the future failure point of the tarp. Like a sweater with a snag, the tarp will begin to unravel at the puncture points. Wind, snow, and other “tensile loads” will exacerbate the problem resulting in tattering and leaks:

Simply put, the current tarps offer a great emergency solution. They’re cheap; they’re light and very versatile. The problem comes with protracted crises where that cheap, light, versatile tarp and its 6-month lifespan is mismatched with the real needs. It’s hard to think of many refugee crises where 6-month usage is appropriate.

If we take tarps as a given (host countries not allowing for more traditional construction materials that seem too permanent), it’s high time to think of the tarp as a trojan horse of sorts. Sure, it’s a tarp, but it’s a tarp designed to last for years and not months. That’s where we see the opportunity to act.

Now for some encouragement.

As close followers of Every Shelter know, we take our lead from the families we serve. This is no different. As stated above, the communities we met utilizing repurposed, single layer billboard material had already done so for several years. That means the material had already accomplished a 4x improvement on durability compared to the existing standard.

We are proposing and piloting a double layer tarp made from this material – perhaps representing an 8x+ durability improvement. To put that another way, we believe our tarps will last for 3-4 years. Additionally, we know, from our testing, that even when our tarp begins to rip or tear, they are repairable. This would be a massive breakthrough – a repairable tarp for continued use.

Additionally, we are seeing a shift in the global community towards localizing solutions. To de-jargon that phrase, it simply means looking to the community itself or the surrounding host community for solutions. We’re starting to see solutions sourced locally be prioritized over a solution that needs to be imported from abroad even if it doesn’t match the official specifications. We at Every Shelter see this as a positive. Localized solutions often mean that the host community will benefit economically. The goods travel shorter distances (saving money, logistical staffing needs, and carbon emissions) and can be tailored to the beneficiaries’ cultural and climatic needs.

As we pursue piloting this material, we aim to use billboard material in Tanzania / Uganda. In doing so, we ultimately hope to identify abundant sources of the material available in the region and use this pilot as an opportunity to build strong, sustainable partnerships.

We’ve also made strong steps from prototyping the tarp in such a way to use sewing as opposed to more complex, unique forms of manufacturing. Why? People sew in every country on the planet. In addition to local collection, we’ll engage local Ugandan entrepreneurs who sew for a living, commissioning them to sew tarps.

There’s a better way, and you can help build it.

One way to look at this project is to think of it as product development, but we want you to join us in creating a better way forward; a smarter, more inclusive community-engaged approach to tackling tough challenges.

Instead of a globalized, misfit system of aid, let’s build a system that roots itself firmly and intelligently in the surrounding host community. A system that presents smarter alternatives to the status quo. A system that serves to create economic opportunities where they’re often needed most.

Let’s provide safe shelters, repurpose waste, and create good-paying jobs!

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