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Of all the camping gear choices, tent-buying is perhaps one of the most perplexing. Green options are few, but they are available to the persistent eco-camper.

How to find eco-friendly tents

As with many eco-choices, the benefits of one type of tent fabric over the other aren’t that clear. Conventionally-grown natural fibers, like cotton and hemp, often require large infusions of pesticides, water, dyes, and energy. Synthetics, on the other hand, are more-often-than-not made from petroleum byproducts and come with toxic finishes. Bottom line: your choice of tent material will largely depend on your camping style, but you should be able to find slightly more earth-friendly options in each camp:

  • High and dry: Camping in a dryer climate? Don’t have far to go? Chemically sensitive? Then you should be able get by with a tent made from natural fibers, such as hemp, wool, and organic cotton. Although a challenge to find, and heavier to carry, they are available through some specialized gear companies and work well when you’re only lugging your gear a short distance. You can often get these types of tents from army surplus outlets. In particular, look for organic versions that are unbleached and free of dyes and convenience finishes (waterproof, permanent press, and stain resistant) to further reduce your tent’s eco-impact.
  • When the rain won’t stop: If you’re camping in a damp climate or heading off on a multi-day hike to remote lands, you’ll want something lightweight and waterproof. In this case, tents made from synthetic fabrics are likely to be your best bet. Just be sure to choose one that’s relatively free of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
  • Beg, borrow, rent?: If you’re an infrequent camper or having a hard time shelling out the cash for new gear, you may want to consider either borrowing a tent from a friend, renting from your local outdoor center, or buying secondhand.
  • DIYers tent-a-rama!: Whether you’re on a budget or having a hard time locating eco-gear in your area, you may opt to sew or construct your own custom tent. Simple versions consisting of quick tarp configurations suffice for many camping trips. If you’re looking for something a little more structured, get your sewing machine out to sew up your own outdoor home.
  • Stop up the holes: Got a tent that’s looking a little worn and torn? Throwing away an otherwise functional tent only adds to growing resource waste and landfill problems, so try fixing it first. You can find small repair kits at most camping stores, and if you need a little guidance, the web is a great resource for straightforward instructions on replacing grommets, patching holes, or fixing broken poles. Oh, and don’t forget waterproofing your tent. Look for water-repellent coatings made of beeswax and water-based finishes rather than petroleum-based solvents.

Find it! Green tents and repair kits

Choosing a green tent helps you go green because…

  • PVC-free outdoor gear does not contribute to the toxic air, ground, and water pollution associated with the manufacture and disposal of PVC plastic.
  • Natural fibers like hemp, cotton, and wool reduce our dependency on non-renewable oil products.
  • Organic cotton farming keeps thousands of pounds of toxic pesticides and insecticides out of the environment each year, and combats global warming through carbon sequestration.

The debate over which is eco-superior—natural or synthetic—has led some to conclude that it’s a wash.[1] The entire lifecycle of any fiber must be considered when evaluating it’s eco-friendliness—how it’s produced, processed, and recycled (if at all), it’s lifespan and ongoing care, and so on. Ultimately, the greenest tent choice may be the one that’s treated with the least chemicals, the longest-lasting, and one that's best-suited to the task at hand. Cotton, hemp, and wool options are best for short stays in relatively dry climates—their organic versions have less environmental impact than conventionally-grown varieties. Synthetics work better in chronically wet conditions and are preferred by those packing their gear into remote locations, but sans chemical treatments is always best.

Natural fibers

Cotton farming uses only about 3 percent of the farmland around the world, but consumes 25 percent of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Conventional cotton production relies on vast amounts of hazardous synthetic chemicals, including pesticides, fertilizers, fixers, and dyes.[2] Conventional wool production also involves the use of pesticides on pastures and chemicals in the feed.[3]

Insects are quickly becoming resistant to recommended rates of pesticide application, and ever-increasing amounts are needed to be effective.[4] Billions of pounds of nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are also used, resulting in runoff that can create aquatic "dead zones" in waterways. Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half of the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil.[5] Chlorine bleaching releases carcinogenic dioxins. Permanent press and stain- and water-repellent finishes can offgas formaldehyde, and their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) into the environment.[6]

Organic cotton is pesticide-free, [7] while hemp yields two to four times more fiber per acre than trees.[8] Organic wool is produced without using hormones or pesticides in the animal or its food. Since pure wool is naturally fire resistant, fire retardant chemicals are not required.[3] Wool is a sustainable resource because the sheep are not killed; they are merely shorn each year.

Synthetic solutions?

Many outdoor gear manufacturers add chemical treatments such as GORE-TEX and Teflon to fabrics in order to help repel insects, water, and odors. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the chemicals used to treat these fabrics can break down in the environment or in the human body. [9][10] Scientific studies have identified 15 PFCs in human blood, and one 2001 industry study of six PFCs in human blood identified four PFCs at higher levels in children than in adults.[10]

One PFC[11]—sometimes known as “C8”—has been found at low levels both in the blood of the general US population and in the environment. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used to make fluoropolymers, substances used in breathable, all-weather clothing. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not currently believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using products containing PFOA, it has called on companies to reduce facility emissions and product content of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating emissions and product content by 2015.[12]

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—a soft plastic used commonly in consumer products—poses severe environmental risks throughout its life cycle.[13] The manufacture of PVC creates toxic pollution, threatening the health of both factory workers and the communities surrounding factory sites. When disposed of, lead, phthalates—which are industrial compounds used to make plastics soft[14]—and other toxic additives can leach into the ground and drinking water supplies from landfills. Ninety percent of the phthalates used today are used to make PVC,[15] and lead levels in the environment have increased by 1,000 times in the past few hundred years.[16] Incineration of PVC products produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens.[15] Recycling is not an option with PVC plastic: one PVC item can contaminate a batch of 100,000 recyclable bottles.[15]

Controversies

Consumer quandaries

There will be downsides regardless of the tent materials employed, but some argue that the advantages of so-called “green” materials like organic cotton and hemp are minor, if present at all. For instance, organic cotton, although grown without the exorbitant pesticides employed in conventional crops, still requires a lot of irrigation in its production, and enormous quantities of dyes during the processing stage.[17] Hemp and bamboo are also naturally tough resources, requiring chemicals to soften them into fibers suitable for fabric products.[18] Some argue that natural fibers, such as organic cotton and bamboo, have shorter lifespans than synthetics (especially when tumble-dried) and require more water and energy to wash and dry.[19]

Polyester, on the other hand, is produced using less water, resists stains (thereby requiring less laundering), and dries quickly (can even be air-dried in humid climes). It can be recycled, but few facilities exist. The downsides? It requires more wood and oil to produce, which adds to the growing climate change problem.[17] Many poly-products can’t be washed, but require dry cleaning instead, a process rife with eco-concerns.[1] And though products made from recycled pop bottles keep usable products out of landfills, their production often involves shipping spent containers from the US to far-flung countries to be processed, only to then be shipped back to the US for sale, racking up loads of air miles and carbon emissions in the process.[18]

Wool worries

Many individuals and organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), take issue with how wool-producing sheep are treated—even those subject to a pesticide-free, environmentally sound production process. A particular act of sheep mutilation that has caught the attention of animal rights supporters is the “mulesing” of Australian Merino sheep. Merinos are bred to have wrinkly skin that, in turn, results in higher yields of wool. These characteristic wrinkles attract flies that lay eggs in the folds of skin, resulting in fatal maggot infestations. To prevent this, ranchers perform mulesing—the sheep are restrained without painkillers and chunks of flesh are removed from the area around the tail, resulting in smooth skin that discourages fly egg-laying.[20]

Mutilation and organic certification aside, another environmental danger of the wool industry is enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.[21]

Glossary

    • methane: A greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere from both natural and man-made sources, including landfills, agricultural activities, wastewater treatment, and coal mining. Once introduced into the atmosphere, methane can exist for nine to 15 years. It’s more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere (global warming) than fellow greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.[22]
  • phthalates: A group of chemicals, used as a plasticizer in PVC plastics, that are known to be testicular toxins and can disrupt hormones.[23]

External links

Footnotes

  1. Grist - The Environmentalist's New Clothes
  2. Sustainable Cotton - 2002 Beltwide Presentation Organic Cotton: Production and Marketing Trends in the U.S. and Globally, see third paragraph
  3. Green Home - About Mattresses and Futons
  4. EcoBedroom - Cotton: Conventional versus Organic
  5. The Green Guide - Product Report: Mattresses and Box Springs
  6. The Green Guide - The Eco-nomical Bedroom
  7. The Green Guide - Greener Workout Wear
  8. John Mintz, "Splendor in the Grass?" Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1997.
  9. Environmental Health Information - Perfluorochemicals and Health (PFCs)
  10. Environmental Working Group - PFCs: Global Contaminants - PFOA is a pervasive pollutant in human blood, as are other PFCs
  11. US Environmental Protection Agency - Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers: Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
  12. US Environmental Protection Agency - Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Fluorinated Telomers: 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program
  13. Stop Waste - Recycling Guide: Plastic #3 Page 13
  14. Our Stolen Future - About phthalates
  15. Center for Environmental Health - Target Agrees To Reduce Use of PVC, a "Poison Plastic"
  16. The Center for Environmental Health - An Unnecessary Poison: Babies, Bibs, and Lead
  17. Articlebase - Sustainable Fashion: Polyester Vs Cotton
  18. New York Times - A World Consumed by Guilt
  19. Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom Page 43
  20. Save the Sheep! - The Animals
  21. Save the Sheep! - The Environment
  22. US Environmental Protection Agency - Methane
  23. Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Compounds - Phthalates

Comments

05/28/2009
1:01am
kat

Does anyone have any info about fire retardants in tent fabric? It may be a hopeless endeavor but I am trying to avoid PBDEs and I am thinking camping gear most likely has alot.

thanks for any thoughts/info.... Any places one can buy tents without...
Thanks

K

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