Is there an alternative to plastic map bags?

By Alan Vyse, Sage Orienteering Club

The map is the essential piece of our orienteering equipment, the only piece we really need. And since
we compete in all types of weather, the map has to be foldable and readable under all possible
conditions. A sad, torn, soggy, mud stained, blood stained and possibly tear stained sheet of paper is
not what a competitor needs or deserves.

For many years, our solution to providing good maps at B.C competitions has been to put the map in a
clear 4 mil plastic bag. Before events, organizers spend hours coaxing reluctant sheets of paper into
slippery plastic bags and then using a heat sealer to close the bag. This takes time and effort and money
on the part of competition organisers and so is reason enough to look for alternatives. But there is now
another pressing concern ……… plastic! Sixty years ago, plastic was the material that heralded a new age;
thirty years ago, Tupperware parties were still a big social draw. But today there are pictures of plastic in
the rivers, plastic in the oceans, plastic in the stomachs of lifeless birds, anti-plastic crusades in
elementary schools, and now news of a single use plastics ban for Canada following similarly intentioned
bans in the European Union. Plastic is no longer a progressive material.

So what can O people do about this? Is there an alternative to plastic map covers?

I think the answer to this question is yes, we could use weather resistant paper. I use the term weather
resistant rather than weather proof to avoid over-promising the product. Sometime, somewhere, a
combination of awful atmospheric conditions and human frailty will demonstrate that weather proof is
an optimistic term. I’ve used weather resistant paper for decades. I became familiar with an early
version of this product as a young forester, in the rain, on Vancouver Island. Rite-in-the Rain paper with
its corny name came in handy little yellow notebooks, just right for recording data with a pencil, while
dressed in elegant oilskin pants and jacket, topped off with a fetching souwester. The paper was
developed 100 years ago for use in the Pacific North West logging industry and is still available. It is fully
recyclable according to the company. But the Rite-in-the-Rain paper I am familiar with is far from ideal
for O purposes. It is stiff and difficult to fold and generally not very suitable for O purposes.

Weather resistant paper has been used for orienteering in Canada in the past. As far as I know, it was
first used in Canada at the Asia Pacific Orienteering Championships held in Alberta in 2002, and it was
used again for the BC Champs in 2007. The product was Teslin manufactured in the US by the PPG
(Pittsburg Plate Glass) Company. I remember being very impressed but Alberta sources report that there
were problems in the printing process, presumably because the sheets clung together. And it turns out
that Australian orienteers have experienced similar problems with the same product using both offset
and digital printing.

After making a trip to the World Masters Games in Torino, Italy, in 2013 where a weather resistant
“blueback” paper was used I was determined to stop using plastic map bags. On asking some questions,
the print shop in Kamloops that we use for printing maps suggested a Xerox water-resistant paper called
Nevertear and we decided to try it for the 2015 Sage Stomp. However, our first trial of Nevertear was almost the last. When I collected the maps from the print shop they had carefully placed the maps face
up in a box. What I didn’t know was that there were a few trial run real paper maps on the bottom.
Sadly, these paper maps were for the elite course. When the maps were placed print-side down in the
competition box, the very non-weather-proof maps were on the top. The event went smoothly until I
was confronted by one irate, red-haired, competitor holding a soggy wet rag in his hand cursing loudly
about the “x%^&” waterproof paper. It took me some time to calm the competitor and work out
what had happened. Crestfallen, I concluded that this was yet another example of Murphy’s Law of
Orienteering Organization at work! Despite the error, Nevertear survived the test and Sage has gone on
to use it in several events since. It is a little “springy”, and the ink will wear off with determined effort,
but we have had no serious complaints in three years of events.

The next stage of my odyssey was in Auckland at the 2017 WMOC. There were no plastic bags in sight at
the events and I quickly discovered that Teslin was being used. There were no reports of problems
during printing or any other time, unlike the Australian experience, and the maps were excellent.
Excited, I thought I had come to the end of my journey. But yet another paper came to my attention in
discussions with other competitors. I discovered that orienteer organizers in the UK and Europe were
using yet another type of paper, Pretex, made by Lahn Paper in Germany.

At this point I was very confused. Which “water resistant paper” was the best?

I never did find a source of the “blueback” paper used in Italy so I decided we should test Pretex and
Teslin at the 2018 BC Championships in Revelstoke (with the agreement of the rest of the organizers). I
was able to arrange a direct purchase of Pretex from Lahn Paper although some fancy banking
manoeuvres were required to avoid charges of money laundering. I tried to explain that this was an
unlikely occupation for an orienteering organizer but to no avail. One thousand sheets of Pretex came
from Germany in time for the event. They were in a weird EU mandated size (32 x 45) and had to be cut
down to the required map sizes before printing started but all went well. The print quality was good,
thank goodness, and there were no complaints. I could only get a few sample sheets of Teslin from a
company called Brainstorm in Maine, the US distributor, with a limited amount of time available. There
were no problems with the printing on that paper and no complaints from the competitors but the
sample was too limited to make any firm conclusions about which paper was best.

So now what?

I think it is fair to say we have reasonable experience with several products in B.C. and Alberta (Teslin,
Nevertear and Pretex) and we have lots of experience with paper and plastic bags. So, I decided to rate
the products based on my interpretation of our experience.

  • Foldable while running
  • Tear and puncture resistant
  • Water resistant
  • Stain resistant
  • High quality print
  • Hassle- free printing
  • Holds print and colour

Here is a summary of my own subjective rating of the options under consideration in comparison with
regular paper and a plastic bag.

OptionManufacturerFoldableTear
Resistant
Water
Resistant
Stain
Resistant
Print
Quality
Print
Stability
Ease of
Printing
NevertearXerox79989810
TeslinPPG8998985 to 9
PretexLahn Paper8888989
Plastic bag
+ paper
Many sources99999810

Nevertear is readily available from Staples but it may have to be ordered. Teslin is available but not from
the manufacturer. It must be ordered from a small company in Maine and the company was very
obliging when I contacted them looking for a small amount to purchase. Pretex is a little more difficult to
order because the company is in Germany. When I eventually found the right contact, the sales lady was
very pleasant and was happy to sell me a relatively small amount of paper. It turned out to be much
cheaper than either of the other papers, however, there is one big drawback: paper is heavy and
airfreight is expensive. Freight costs might come down with a larger order.

The last point is that stuffing map bags is a pain, and map bags are plastic, which is why I started on this
odyssey .

So can we settle on a winner now?

Not so fast! Remember my concern about plastic? It turns out that all of the alternatives have a dirty
little secret. We might be getting rid of plastic bags, but we certainly aren’t getting rid of plastic which
was my original purpose.

  • Nevertear is a polyester product
  • Teslin is a polyolefin synthetic material
  • And Pretex is mix of natural and synthetic fibres (polyamide and polyester)

Perhaps we could recycle the maps? It turns out this is a dead end too. None of the products are
recyclable under our current BC rules, although the manufacturer of Pretex claims that the paper is
compostable (but notes that the compost is not saleable).

On the other hand, both components of our tried and true paper and plastic bag combination are
recyclable under current conditions. It is the cheapest option by far, readily available and meets all the
technical criteria and it is cheap. And according to recent travellers to O events in Sweden, sealing the
map bags is unnecessary.

Now I’m back to square one and I’m wondering if I have been wasting my time, indulging in a little
harmless navel gazing on the subject of saving the world from plastic bags.

The answer to this question may be NO because our current BC government has said that it is
considering banning the use of single use plastic products. Plastic bags, along with straws, coffee
stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging are considered to be in this category and it
seems inevitable that our 4 mil map bags will fall into this category. Victoria, Vancouver, and other
municipalities have already attempted bans, or are considering bans, although the plastics
manufacturers are fighting back.

If a ban comes to pass, and this is a big IF, our best option is Pretex, because it is at least compostable
even if it does have some dodgy ingredients.

If the ban doesn’t come to pass, and you hate spending time sliding paper maps into plastic bags, your
best option, once you sell your soul to the devil, is Pretex.

But there is one more possible option. Rite-in-the-rain is an impregnated paper. It is fully recyclable as
paper according to the company. Maybe we should take a closer look!

But not me. I’m dizzy from going round in circles. And when I recover I have 600 12×18 sheets of Pretex
to sell!