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Practicing sustainability in the tent rental industry

Business, Tents | October 12, 2009 | By:

Tent renters benefit the environment—and their own profitability—when they get the most use possible out of their tents.

Hybrid cars, compost piles and recycling bins are signs of the times. But what does sustainability mean in regard to event tents? On the one hand, the rental industry is the perfect example of the reuse of products as opposed to the “use-it-once-and-throw-it-away” mentality. On the other hand, given that rental tents are made of vinyl (PVC), there are environmental implications in both a tent’s manufacture and its disposal.

“Everyone is looking for alternatives, but options are limited and economics will continue to drive the bulk of the industry toward PVC in the short term,” says Scott Campbell, president of Rainier Industries, Tukwila, Wash. “Non-PVC alternatives that are economically feasible don’t have the life span our customers demand.”

For tent renters, prolonging the life of a tent becomes a key way to minimize the environmental impact of PVC. It also promotes another kind of sustainability—that of a rental company itself.

“The trend of society is to go green,” says Matt Mutton, operations manager of Bob Mutton Party Rental & Event Planning, Fort Wayne, Ind. “I think our industry is most profitable if it is not wasteful.”

The lifecycle of a tent

Rental companies can take many steps to extend the usable life of tent fabric, including identifying the life stages of a tent; using tents carefully; proper cleaning, storage, and repair of tents; and repurposing vinyl when its usefulness as a tent comes to an end.

“Big tents have to last,” Mutton says. “It takes several rentals to pay a tent off, so you won’t make any money in this business if you cannot reuse the tents many times after they are paid off.”

Companies use different terms to describe the various stages in the life of a tent, but the idea of classification is an industry standard. “Our computer system classifies our tents in four categories: new, good, fair and poor,” says Kevin Yonce of TCT&A Industries, Urbana, Ill. “The classification of ‘new’ is used primarily for weddings and upscale corporate events. ‘Good’ is for backyard events, such as graduation parties, family reunions, tailgate parties and so on. ‘Fair’ are often used for county fairs, construction sites and events where they will be exposed to dirt and grime. ‘Poor’ are used in emergency situations.”

Kenneth Andrew of Andrew Tent Co. Inc., Albany, Ga., rates his tents as “one through nine, with one being the best and cleanest.” Mutton uses a letter system: “ ‘A’ tents are top of the line. ‘B’ tents look nice but the color will be faded and some noticeable scuffing, stains and repairs may have occurred. ‘C’ tents are structurally strong but will be faded and could have large stains or spots on them.”

A little TLC

Regardless of what classification system is used, both sustainability and profitability are achieved by preventing a tent from getting dirty in the first place. Andrew recommends “a little TLC and drop cloths.” Clayton Frech, vice president of sustainability and operations for Classic Party Rentals, El Segundo, Calif., advises to never let a canopy touch the ground. Mutton adds, “Keep your inventory in bags, not dragging your tents while rolled up or when laid out, and always use drop cloths no matter how clean the surface looks.”

No tent stays clean forever, so what cleaning products work the best? “Goop® and Goof Off® are critical to maintaining the visual appeal of a tent,” Mutton says. He notes that Goof Off is said by some to fade colors with excessive use, but that he has found no better way to get off dirt and grit. Frech cautions against using bleach to clean tent fabric because it will eventually deteriorate the vinyl.

Tent storage presents another opportunity to extend fabric life. “Storing tents only when dry is important,” Yonce says. Frech adds, “If there is moisture on the canopy during the strike, immediately wash it to avoid mildew or at least hang the fabric to dry.”

Repairing fabric also lengthens the life of a tent, and doing it in-house with the appropriate product—liquid vinyl, repair tape, patches and so forth—helps to avoid freight costs. Mutton reports that his company patches smaller tents in the winter; larger tents that do not fit in warehouses are patched in the spring. TCT&A Industries also does its repairs in-house.

“Champaign County Tent has repair sheets that are filled out by the crew when a tent is taken down if any damage is seen, and they are repaired as soon as possible,” Yonce says. “Also, over the winter we service and maintain our inventory.”

Here again, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Don’t put your tents up for occasions that will expose them to conditions that put additional wear on tents,” Yonce says. “Fairs, events close to high traffic areas and areas where there are high pollutants will age a tent quicker.”

Mutton notes that with proper care, a tent can last quite a long time—a recently retired commercial tent of his had been in service since 1985.

Put out to pasture

Still, event tents eventually reach an end to their commercial service life—but that doesn’t mean that the vinyl is useless. “We cut it up to make bags or to sell it if we have a buyer,” Andrew says. Rusty Parr, president of A V Party Rentals, Newhall, Calif., adds that the material can be used as drop cloths. “The excess material can be used to make a variety of products in the rental industry, including rain gutters, sandbags, equipment covers and canopy bags,” Frech says.

Classic Party Rentals has also donated some “tired” canopies to nonprofits over the years. “However, donation always opens other cans of worms with issues like liability, maintenance and repair, etc.,” Frech says.

Yonce says that his company holds on to old fabric “in case we get calls from customers with something that needs to be covered, [for example] a wood- or sandpile.” Used tent material sometimes finds its way to a farmer’s haystack—put out to pasture, you might say.

Frech says that it would be wonderful if the manufacturing industry could take more ownership of the product at the end of its lifecycle. (See “Recycling PVC”.) Parr agrees.

“A ‘trade-in’ program would be great,” he says, “and would enable us to buy more frequently.”

Peder Engebretson is a teacher and freelance writer in St. Anthony Village, Minn.

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