Comp-A-Tent: Creating environmental alternatives to disposable products
Our society is increasingly ‘disposable’. As manufacturing becomes cheaper and pricing more competitive it has become more cost-effective to throw away something and replace it than fix it. How long did you keep your last phone for? And how long do you keep hold of cheap clothing or shoes that you buy? A lot of products are now replaced every couple of years. Tents are the perfect example of this; a £30 tent often isn’t worth the customers’ time cleaning, packing, carrying and storing for infrequent use.
However, a disposable consumer culture comes with an environmental cost. Over 100,000 tents go to landfill sites each year in the UK alone, partially due to the fact that a staggering one in five tents is left behind by UK festival-goers. Because tents are made up of so many elements, they are not feasible to recycle. This represents a tremendous annual waste and causes environmental damage as well as an expensive clean-up bill for festival organisers who are also liable for heavy landfill taxes.
As an avid festivalgoer and after witnessing this problem first-hand, I decided there was something I could do about it. Using my interdisciplinary architectural degree from University College London I developed a solution and founded Comp-A-Tent before graduating in 2015. Comp-A-Tent’s innovation is a temporary lightweight structure, made from compostable materials than can be disposed alongside food waste. Corn-starch bioplastic - the thin, stretchy material used for food bin bags - isn’t very strong in isolation, but biodegrades in 120 days. By laminating the material with natural fibres in between (such as bamboo or silk), we made it strong enough to withstand wear and tear, and also provide structure. Whilst a single layer of bioplastic would be permeable, layering the material makes it waterproof and therefore suitable for providing shelter from the elements.
Designed to avoid using non-renewable resources, the product can be added to existing composting infrastructure at festivals, saving hundreds of tonnes of landfill per year. Whilst the tent decomposes in months under the composting conditions, if stored correctly, it can last over a year.
We had to completely redesign the traditional tent structure to incorporate the new materials. Originally, we designed an A-frame structure but are now looking at a Tepee structure to reduce the manufacturing requirements. Since hiring award-winning designer, James Molkenthin, we have entered a rapid prototyping phase to find the most efficient shape and process for the tent to reduce the complexity and cost of the product. We plan to demonstrate 25 different prototypes at festivals in the summer to get customer feedback.
The innovation has applications far beyond festivals. I believe if we are going to encourage consumerism, then technology needs to be developed to reduce the waste caused by this. Making bioplastics robust could lead to the development of biodegradable hammocks, compostable occasional furniture for events and even temporary structures for military uses.
I have had support from competitions such as UCL Advances Bright Ideas award, NACUE Varsity Pitch, and the Royal Academy of Engineering Launchpad competition, which supports the most promising young technology entrepreneurs in the UK through world-class business mentoring.
In this episode we speak to Dr Mark Schenk, an aerospace engineer whose childhood interest in origami led to innovative work developing foldable structures.Read more
In this podcast episode, we speak to QEPrize Judge Jim Al-Khalili about his work on quantum biology and the key role that engineers play in society.Read more