Did you know that postal services, the newspaper industry, and the agricultural industry are three of the largest users of rubber bands?
Of course, those aren’t the only industries that use rubber bands, but it would be far too time-consuming to list them all.
Just so you can see how widely used rubber bands are, approximately 30 million pounds of them are sold just in the United States each year.
With rubber bands being such a widely used product, we need to question their eco-friendliness. So are rubber bands eco-friendly?
Rubber bands are more eco-friendly than products made from synthetic rubber or other synthetic materials. However, the biggest concern with their eco-friendliness is in the manufacturing process itself.
In this article, we’ll explore how rubber bands are made and other aspects with regard to their eco-friendliness, so that you can make an informed decision about using them.
1. What Are Rubber Bands Made Of?
Despite many “rubber” products being made from synthetic materials today, rubber bands are one of the rubber products still made from natural rubber.
This is because the purpose of rubber bands is to stretch around objects, and natural rubber offers better elasticity, meaning that it stretches more than synthetic rubber alternatives do.
As far as what natural rubber is, it comes from a substance called latex. Latex is a milky substance that is found inside the rubber tree and is composed of rubber, resin, fats and waxes, and minerals.
2. How Are Rubber Bands Made?
To make rubber bands, latex first has to be extracted from the tree. This is done by “tapping” the tree, in which a V-shape is cut into the bark of the tree.
This causes the latex to use out of the tree, wherein drains into containers underneath. Once the latex is collected, it undergoes processing before being shipped to a rubber factory.
Processing the latex involves removing impurities and filtering it to remove everything except for the rubber.
Then, the rubber is collected in large vats and combined with an acid, which causes the rubber to cling together to form slabs. The slabs are passed between rollers to remove water and pressed into blocks.
The blocks of rubber are then shipped to rubber factories, where a machine cuts them into small pieces.
Next, the rubber is mixed with other chemicals to vulcanize – or harden – it, dye it different colors, or make it more or less elastic.
The rubber is then heated and flattened – a process known as milling – then cut into strips.
After that, it is extruded through a machine, which forces out long tubes of rubber. The tubes of rubber are placed over aluminum poles and cured using steam and heat.
After curing, they are removed from the tubes and fed into another machine which cuts them into rubber bands of various sizes.
Several rubber bands from each batch are tested to see how far they’ll stretch and whether or not they’ll break by being stretched.
If most of the rubber bands that are tested pass the test, then they are packaged and ready to be sold.
3. Are Rubber Bands Natural or Synthetic?
We’ve already touched on this a little bit, but rubber bands are different than other rubber products because they are made with natural rubber.
Up to 70% of rubber products today are made with synthetic rubber and contain no natural latex. But rubber bands are part of the 30% of rubber products in which natural rubber is still used.
Again, this is due to the high elasticity of natural rubber which is hard to achieve with synthetic rubber, and you want a rubber band to be as stretchy as possible if it is to actually be useful for its intended purpose.
Being made from natural rubber also means that rubber bands are not made from plastic in any way. Plastic is another synthetic material that is different from synthetic rubber in chemical composition.
Although plastic and synthetic rubber are both derived from natural materials, they are far more heavily processed than the natural rubber used to make rubber bands.
4. Are Rubber Bands Eco-Friendly?
Being made from natural rubber, rubber bands are far more eco-friendly than if they were made from synthetic rubber. But, that doesn’t mean that they are 100% eco-friendly.
With that being said, how latex is harvested from rubber trees is relatively sustainable, as it can be harvested without cutting the trees down.
And, the trees have to be tapped in different places each time in order to give the other places time to heal.
Rubber trees can also be tapped for latex starting around the time the tree is 6 years old and they can be tapped for up to 28 years. They also aren’t tapped every day, but rather every other day.
So, it’s not the process of collecting latex that is the problem when it comes to eco-friendliness. It’s how the rubber bands themselves are made.
Although there are chemicals used to purify and process the rubber used to make rubber bands, the process is mostly mechanical and relies on lots of energy used to heat the rubber and power the machines used to make rubber bands.
Most of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable resources, and burning them also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
There is one benefit of the manufacturing process that is used to make rubber bands:
During the extrusion process in which rubber is turned into long tubes, excess rubber that builds up is then removed from the machine and reused in the milling process instead of being thrown away.
That means that very little rubber is wasted, which helps make rubber bands a bit more eco-friendly.
Plus, assuming that rubber bands could be made from synthetic rubber, natural rubber bands are significantly more eco-friendly since synthetic rubber is made from crude oil and lots of chemicals.
5. Are Rubber Bands Biodegradable?
Since rubber bands are made from a natural material, they are biodegradable. However, they are not as quick to biodegrade as materials such as paper, but they will break down eventually.
The amount of time it takes a rubber band to break down depends on the environmental conditions.
For example, a rubber band in a landfill may take longer to break down than a rubber band that finds its way into your yard somehow.
This is due to rubber bands in a landfill not being as exposed to oxygen and other elements that aid in decomposition, so it will likely rely solely on bacteria to biodegrade and it will decompose anaerobically, which is not as eco-friendly as aerobic biodegradation.
This is because anaerobic biodegradation releases methane into the atmosphere.
Rubber, in general, can take a long time to decompose as well, and again, this depends on the conditions in which the rubber is left to biodegrade.
But since rubber bands are smaller pieces of rubber, they will biodegrade much faster than rubber in general will, and they may biodegrade in as little as one year.
6. Are Rubber Bands Compostable?
Rubber bands can be composted, but again, it may take them longer to break down than other materials.
How quickly they break down depends on the conditions of your compost.
If you don’t want to wait a while for them to break down, you may want to avoid composting them and just find a way to reuse them.
7. Can Rubber Bands Be Recycled?
Rubber bands are generally not recyclable, especially through curbside programs.
This is mostly due to their size and being complicated to recycle without losing strength and elasticity in the process.
But even though rubber bands can’t be recycled, there are plenty of ways that you can reuse and repurpose them.
For example, rubber bands are a more eco-friendly option than “chip clips,” which are made from plastic. They can be used just as effectively to seal up bags.
You can also use them as bookmarks or if you have a bunch of them, give them to businesses or schools so that they don’t have to buy more.
There are endless ways that you can reuse rubber bands to allow them to be more eco-friendly instead of throwing them away.
8. Are Rubber Bands Sustainable?
In general, rubber bands are sustainable. The process of harvesting the latex in the first place is sustainable since one tree can be used for about two decades.
But due to programs and education for rubber tappers that help reduce deforestation and promote the better use and management of natural resources, rubber tapping has been made even more sustainable.
This is especially important since rubber trees are grown in rainforests that already face heavy deforestation, so making rubber tapping more sustainable is huge for protecting natural resources.
Rubber bands are also biodegradable and can be reused in many different ways, which means that they don’t always have to be thrown away – which increases their sustainability.
The only thing that isn’t sustainable about rubber bands is the amount of energy that is used to make them and the source of that energy.
Switching to renewable energy resources can help to solve this problem, but unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as just “making the switch.”
Using renewable energy involves a lot of research and money, which is why it’s so important for the way that the latex itself is harvested and the way that we use and dispose of rubber bands to be sustainable.
9. Are Rubber Bands Toxic?
Rubber bands are not necessarily toxic, but they can pose a risk to both humans and wildlife.
For humans with a latex allergy, rubber bands can cause skin irritation, breathing difficulties, or even shock, depending on how severe the allergy is.
Ingesting a rubber band can be a choking hazard for small children and animals, and rubber bands can pose a strangulation risk for children and animals too.
This is why it’s so important that if you do throw rubber bands away, you do so properly and don’t just toss them wherever into the environment.
Even if you are going to just throw them away, you want to make sure that they are in a sealed-up trash bag to reduce the chances of them ending up elsewhere in the environment besides a landfill.
It’s not the most eco-friendly option, but it is safer for wildlife to make sure that they are disposed of properly.
10. Are There Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Rubber Bands?
Rubber bands are relatively eco-friendly other than how they are made. And, they’re a better option for holding things together than plastic clips, zip ties, etc.
With that being said, there are very few options that would be more eco-friendly than rubber bands.
These materials are still not recyclable, but they will biodegrade or compost easily. But even with using these materials, it’s still important to dispose of them properly to prevent harm to wildlife.
Rubber bands are one of only about 30% of products that are still made from natural rubber.
Being made from natural rubber makes them more eco-friendly than if they were made from synthetic rubber.
As far as how rubber is made, the actual harvesting process itself is pretty eco-friendly and sustainable.
The only thing that isn’t eco-friendly about rubber bands is that large amounts of energy are used in the making of them.
But, rubber bands are biodegradable and compostable, and they can be reused.
They are not recyclable, which is why it is important to dispose of them in one of the above ways or reuse them in order to keep them out of landfills and the environment.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to feel too guilty about using rubber bands, as long as you use and dispose of them responsibly.