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Sunday, July 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Under The Sheets

FLAG AND FIREWORKS are important accessories when you pack for our nation's birthday, but on the wet side of the mountains The Big Blue Tarp is the necessity.

The actual chance of measurable precipitation in Seattle on the Fourth of July is just 26 percent, the National Weather Service reports, meaning that in the course of a century, it should rain on 26 Independence Days at SeaTac Airport.

But the chance of you escaping measurable rain on your salmonberry-choked foothills hideaway is similar to your chance of choosing the fastest checkout line, finding a curbside downtown parking space, or selecting the correct clothing gift for a female significant other: infinitesimally small.

Better pack that tarp.

Let's face it, that strange electric-blue color duplicated nowhere else in nature — strung between old-growth patriarchs with a snarl of clothesline and granny knots, its plastic hazed by campfire smoke, dripping at every eve, the overhead weave bathing your party in a bizarre reactor-pool aquarium light — is what the Northwest is all about. Huddling under a wet tarp is as patriotic as it gets.

Yet how many of us appreciate what an American miracle The Big Blue Tarp truly is?

Our very own in-house outdoorsman, Ron Judd, has immortalized the tarp in countless columns. FEMA has given it post-hurricane cachet, overpaying contractors by the zillions to staple it over roofs. The shiny rectangles have become so ubiquitous in TV disaster video that New Orleans hosted a fashion show in February at which runway models were draped in blue tarps and plastic garbage bags.

Your neighbors have thrown their polyethylene tarps over woodpiles, motor homes, junk cars, never-to-be-finished ferro-cement sailboat hulls, tree forts, swimming pools, hot tubs, barbecues, room additions, compost piles, doghouses, lumber stacks, patios, leaky tents, rusting oil tanks and misplaced toddlers.

In a pinch, the tarps can become a survival blanket, a love nest, a truck-bed liner, a drinking-water catcher, a cockpit shade, a boat sail, a leak stopper, a playhouse, a slip-and-slide, a privacy screen, a drop cloth, a table cloth, a ground liner, a poncho, a pond bed, a murder-victim wrapper, redneck carpeting, picnic blanket, iridescent prom dress or — if cut into bright letters — a rescue plea.

Tarps can be hazardous. In January a tarp flew off a truck in Tacoma and caused a chain-collision that killed one man and injured several others. The same thing happened in Minnesota this past February.

Their very toughness makes them slow to decompose. Though they eventually break down in sunlight and can be melted and recycled, only 5 percent of all plastics are.

Yet tarps have become so essential to the true Washingtonian that Gov. Chris Gregoire should issue them at the border. No one seems to know how many Big Blue Tarps are out there, but North American factories churn them out by the tens of millions of square yards annually, and China exports them by the shipload. It's a safe bet that if all Americans got together, we could tarp over greater Seattle in a really bad rain. And then some.

THE STORY OF the plastic tarp includes the Hula Hoop, the Battle for the Atlantic, the Beatles and the Nobel Prize, but we begin with the word "tarp" itself, which comes from the old maritime practice of tarring a canvas pall, or covering, to waterproof objects on ships. Sailors became known as "tars," while the use of a pall to cover coffins led to the term "to cast a pall of gloom."

In the Dark Ages that preceded plastic, it was leather, hemp and cotton canvas that provided overhead shelter in the wild. Then came an environmental and economic crisis caused by a shortage of elephants, and a new kind of industrial alchemy.

By the time of the Civil War, supplies of ivory tusks and tortoise shell were running low as the demand for piano keys, billiard balls and combs soared. The tusks and shells contained the natural polymers used in making such things. So as supplies dwindled, scientists began looking for an artificial polymer, which is a fancy name for a chain of molecules.The first British display of a plastic polymer in 1862 proved too brittle for practical use, but American improvements — cue the patriotic music here — led by 1870 to a more durable plastic called celluloid, based on wood pulp and nitric acid. While the first billiard balls had a tendency to catch on spectacular fire if touched by burning cigar ash, and made such a loud bang when hit that one Western saloon keeper complained every game was causing his patrons to draw their guns, improvements in design not only led to better balls but to dentures and film.

The plastics industry had started, but the real revolution came early in the 20th century when chemists realized you could use hydrocarbons — oil and gas — and heat them to produce propylene or ethylene. This was then chemically bonded to make a polymer of carbon atoms with hydrogen to each side.

Carbon is used to make all kinds of things in nature, from diamonds to people, because it sticks to itself and other atoms like Lego bricks.

The Big Blue Tarp is made of woven chains of carbon-hydrogen molecules, with a vinyl coating on each side to make it waterproof. The same basic chemistry is the root of products ranging from the Frisbee to bulletproof vests.

Plastic tarp invention was a long evolution, however. It began in 1932, when the British began testing chemical reactions under high pressure. One of 50 experiments used ethylene. The desired reaction didn't occur, but a strange white waxy substance was left on a container vessel. Polyethylene — called polythene in Britain — had been discovered.

Scientists suggested the new plastic could insulate submarine cables, and a production plant came on line the same day Hitler invaded Poland. The Brits found polyethylene actually didn't work well on undersea cables, but it was such a lightweight radar-cable insulator that radar could fit onto airplanes. This allowed the Allies to effectively hunt for surfaced U-boats from the air, a key factor to winning the Battle of the Atlantic.

What had been secret in World War II was commercialized soon after. In 1953, German chemist Karl Ziegler found a way to make molecules of ethylene line up in a stronger manner without using high temperatures or pressure, ultimately making polyethylene cheap and winning Ziegler a share of a Nobel Prize. Americans Robert L. Banks and J. Paul Hogan pioneered a similar process.

Yet early production problems of cracking and softness made prospects gloomy until the Wham-O Toy corporation created the plastic Hula Hoop in 1958. Twenty million Hula Hoops sold for $1.98 in the first six months. The fad consumed huge amounts of plastic and gave manufacturers the money to perfect the polyethylene process.

There are many plastics, of course. You can take your basic hydrocarbon and add chlorine for polyvinyl chloride, nitrogen for nylon, fluorine for Teflon, oxygen for polyester, and so on. Replace carbon with silicon and you make Silly Putty.

But polyethylene has since become the world's most widely used plastic, from soft-drink containers to Tupperware. About 60 million tons of polyethylene — the weight of 600 aircraft carriers — is produced each year.

In 1967's "The Graduate," young Dustin Hoffman was advised with one word: "Plastics." In 1969's "Abbey Road," the Beatles recognized the sweeping plasticization of modern society with their brief ditty, "Polythene Pam":

Well you should see her in drag

dressed in her polythene bag

Yes you should see Polythene Pam.

Profound? Hey, it was the '60s.

Campers had long known that both the sky and ground can be damp. The idea of a cheap, light, foldable barrier was as enticing in our rain forests as a Duraflame log. However, initial outdoor plastic tarps were simple sheet polyethylene that tore or punctured easily. Veteran campers whose memories go back to the 1960s will remember grim Fourth of Julys watching water pour through pinhole cracks onto a steaming, heatless campfire circle of celebratory gloom.

The breakthrough came in the 1970s when manufacturers realized that weaving the carbon chains like a blanket and then coating them with vinyl for waterproofing would create a far tougher, rip-stop product. The polyethylene goop is dyed, extruded in huge plastic sheets, cut into narrow strips, woven, sealed and baked. Sew in a perimeter rope, add grommets (the peculiar word may come from a French term for part of a bridle) and voila, you have The Big Blue Tarp!

But why blue?

"IT JUST SEEMS that people like blue," guesses C.R. Skidmore, president of North Carolina's DIZE Co., which makes tarps and tents. About 80 percent of what they sell is blue, he said, with green, brown, silver and orange other common colors.

Jeff Wright, sales manager of Ohio's Maiweave, which helps supply FEMA, thought perhaps the federal government preferred blue. Russ Robson, marketing director of Interwrap in Mission, B.C., guessed blue might be preferred by the government as being readily identifiable. But the federal agency ignored our inquiry about its choice of color. They're still, we suspect, grumpy about the whole hurricane thing.

In fact, we couldn't get any Big Blue Tarp comments or information out of Dupont, Dow, a national plastics museum in Massachusetts, or industry lobbying groups like the American Plastics Council or the Society of the Plastics Industry. Perhaps they didn't take us seriously.

Maybe you have to spend a night under a leaking cotton canvas umbrella tent — cradling your sparklers in a fetal position while feeling the rising tide of upwelling ground water through an obsolete plastic ground sheet with more holes in it than a Weapons of Mass Destruction memo — to truly appreciate modern plastic tarps.

We Northwesterners get it. Rugged, flexible, compact and versatile, The Big Blue Tarp is often all that's between us and the howling wilderness (or at least the annoying neighbors in the next campsite) each Independence Day.

American and Canadian manufacturers argue, not surprisingly, that their product is superior to Asian imports and that one buys a cheapo, quick-decaying tarp at one's peril. Unfortunately, it is not easy to identify the right stuff by brand name, store or even eyeball examination. The weight, weave and grommet all make a difference, but, as Wright laments, "consumers wouldn't really know." Until the wind and rain come up.

"You want a good tarp, we make them," says Steve Karlin, owner of Chicago's Mauritzon. "If you build it right — heat-sealed seams, brass grommets, reinforced hems — it will last."

His company has been sewing tarps of one kind or another for 118 years. It sews 50 million square yards of tarp a year. Modifications of the basic product secure truck loads, wrap lumber, shrink-wrap manufactured objects for shipping and cover hay bales.

Since good plastic tarps have a way of hanging around, one can't help but wonder about the future of our planet: Will Earth some day be wrapped like a giant Christo art project, fortified for Fourth of Julys for millennia to come?

Yes, tarps can be melted down and remanufactured. They do degrade under ultraviolet radiation, breaking into smaller and smaller bits toward a final disintegration into their constituent atoms of carbon and hydrogen. But that takes a gawdawful long time.

Plastic still looks plasticky, and the mildewed campground canvas of yesteryear has given way to, let's face it, vinyl-coated tarps, fiberglass, aluminum, nylon and even picnic tables made from recycled plastics.

Is this good?

It certainly seems inevitable. Venerable REI, as enticing as a toy store, is a Shrine of Plastic. Nylon tents, polypropylene underwear, Velcro, Gore-Tex, carbon ski poles and bicycles, fiberglass kayaks, foam-filled running shoes, synthetic sleeping bags, polyethylene water bottles — it's all just proof that "The Graduate" was right. Plastics! Up to a tenth of oil and gas goes into them. Even the next generation of Boeing aircraft are essentially plastic (carbon) planes. Railroads are experimenting with ties made of recycled plastic.

Technology will undoubtedly move on. Some day The Big Blue Tarp will seem as quaint as a Civil War tent, and we'll be boring our grandchildren with stories of how we had to look at our neighbor's plasticized firewood pile for years on end. "By gum, one year I tied so many tarps into the trees that it took three holiday weekends just to break camp!"

Yeah, the kids will be turning the rain off and on with a switch. But that's the future, and this is now. We Northwest web-toes know that come Independence Day, there's nothing like being dependent — on your sturdy polyethylene Big Blue Tarp.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes, a former Seattle Times staff photographer, is a freelance photographer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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