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Rubber is a part of our daily lives. From rubber bands to Rubbermaid containers, it is a substance we think we understand.
However, do you know what rubber actually is?
Do you understand its environmental impact?
Is rubber biodegradable?
If you want to make the best choices for your life, we will explore the following points in more detail:
- Environmental impact
- Decomposition rate
- Disposal methods
Table of Contents
What Is Rubber?
Rubber may seem like a modern invention, but it has been used by humans for 1000 years. It was originally harvested from plants that produce a white, milky substance known as latex.
Latex is actually pretty common. You can even find it in the average dandelion weed. However, the vast majority of latex is harvested from the rubber tree.
Latex is processed into rubber through a chemical transformation. Chemically speaking, rubber is a isoprene polymer.
What makes this polymer so unique is that the molecules can spring back into shape when you pull them apart.
This is why rubber has an elastic nature. The flexible molecules allow rubber to stretch and bend without losing its initial shape.
The following video shows how natural rubber is made:
Obviously, the uses for this were readily apparent. Some of the oldest documented uses for rubber can be traced back to native Olmec tribe in Mexico. There is evidence that they created rubber balls from tree sap for recreational purposes.
This dates back to 1600 BC. Over the centuries, rubber production found new uses. In particular, rubber became a hot commodity in the 1800s when the first automobiles were invented.
The demand for rubber prompted a worldwide search for new sources. Areas populated with rubber trees were suddenly desirable hotspots.
Rubber production has not slowed down since that time. In fact, if anything, the demand for rubber has only continued to grow. As more uses for rubber are developed, new types of rubber development are also being explored.
What Is the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Rubber?
With increased demand, natural sources of rubber quickly came under pressure. It is perhaps no surprise that scientists started exploring synthetic alternatives to natural rubber.
Therefore, when talking about rubber, it is essential to differentiate between natural and synthetic variations. As explained earlier, natural rubber is procured from plants that produce latex.
Because natural supplies are inherently limited, the desire for a synthetic alternative quickly became real. Early experimentation began in the 1800s, but it really took off in the 1910s.
However, during the outbreak of war in the 1930s, natural supply lines were quickly cut off. In the United States, fear of a rubber shortage prompted officials to encourage synthetic development.
After all, without a sufficient supply of rubber, it would be difficult to provide military resources to the front lines.
During this time, the government worked alongside the private sector to dramatically overhaul the production of synthetic rubber. In 1941, the industry produced 231 tons of synthetic rubber. By 1945, that output had increased to 70,000 tons.
Through this initiative, the United States was able to achieve rubber independence. Even today, synthetic rubber production is consistent. Up to 70 percent of rubber used in the country today is made from synthetic manufacturing.
If you’ve watched the video above about how natural rubber is made, you will notice that the production of synthetic rubber is very different – even though the final product has similar properties:
Despite the fact that people think of natural and synthetic rubber interchangeably, there are some differences between the two. Natural rubber tends to be somewhat stronger and have less of an odor.
Synthetic rubber, by contrast, can be more resistant to heat and age. Some people are allergic to the proteins in natural rubber. This does not tend to be the case with synthetic rubber.
When you look at the statistics, both types of rubber are widely used. In a single year, 13.7 million metric tons of natural rubber are produced. This compares to 15.3 million metric tons of synthetic rubber.
Is Rubber a Plastic?
As we talk about types of rubber, we must also make sure we do not confuse rubber with other similar substances.
In particular, many people associate rubber with plastic. In fact, for some, the terms are used as synonyms.
While people may assume that rubber and plastic are the same, it is important to know that they are actually distinct products. Rubber and plastic have separate chemical makeups.
Rubber is made from isoprene, whereas plastic is made from synthetic polymer compounds.
In usage, rubber is flexible and bends easily. Plastic, however, is noted for its ability to be molded. Therefore, while they may seem quite similar to the normal consumer, they are actually used quite differently in manufacturing.
Accordingly, rubber is often used for car tires, bottle nipples, rubber bands and more. These products are all extremely pliable, and they are not prone to breaking or snapping.
Plastic is actually rather brittle. However, it is lightweight and resistant to weather and heat. This is why it has become one of the most widely used products in the modern world.
To further understand some of the differences, it is best to clarify that all plastics are synthetic. There are some variations with an organic base, but all plastics are manmade.
As explained in previous sections, rubber can be naturally sourced. This differentiation helps us understand the comparable environmental impact of both products.
Is Rubber Environmentally Friendly?
The applications of rubber are thoroughly established. Even so, just because a product is widely used does not mean it is a smart choice. Therefore, we must look more closely at the environmental impact of rubber.
One might think that natural rubber is environmentally friendly. This is possible, but it is not necessarily the case during normal production. There is documented evidence that rubber harvests can cause widespread environmental damage.
For example, when dried rubber sheets are produced, there can be negative impacts on the local air and water. Local communities are often inundated with foul odors.
During rubberwood burning, smoke particles cause widespread problems in the environment. Local workers are exposed to high levels of smoke, and it is a significant source of emissions in manufacturing areas like Thailand.
Water must be used in production, which causes issues with wastewater. In other words, the local water supply can be contaminated from rubber production.
When rubber is produced into latex, problems still persist. More wastewater is produced, and smell pollution has been shown to negatively impact the workers. Even solid rubber can be washed out, causing blockages in drains and natural waterways.
While these problems are all real, they can be mitigated with proper steps. The problem is that much natural rubber production is done in areas with limited regulation.
There is evidence that change is starting. For example, in Malaysia, new efforts have been put forth to deal with climate change in the region. There have been active efforts to analyze the effects of the local rubber industry.
Other efforts include the implementation of sustainable rubber farming methods. Sustainable farming allows rubber trees to be harvested without the risk of deforestation. It also reduces the usage of herbicides and pesticides.
It takes seven years or more for a rubber tree to reach maturity. Therefore, farms must be planned meticulously in order to ensure consistent production without deforestation.
These measures are all being drawn up by the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber. However, the costs associated with these measures continue to be a deterrent in many local markets.
To support environmental efforts regarding rubber, look for companies that source their rubber from sustainable farms. For example, in recent years, major car companies like General Motors and BMW have committed to sustainable rubber sources.
The problems are not negated with synthetic rubber alternatives. The synthetic rubber industry has its own problems.
In 1977, the EPA published its analysis of the synthetic rubber industry. It showed that the industry produced significant water pollution.
Moreover, problems with emissions and solid waste were also documented. These byproducts can be mitigated with more in-plant controls, but success will be varied across the industry.
This all has to do with the production of rubber. However, the environmental impact also comes into play with the disposal of rubber. That is a topic that deserves a more thorough exploration.
Is Rubber Biodegradable?
In order to understand the biodegradability of rubber, first you must clarify what type of rubber you are considering.
Natural rubber has different properties than synthetic rubber, and these properties are even more apparent during disposal.
Natural rubber is made from plants. Therefore, it is biodegradable. This means it will start to decompose when you throw it away.
The facts are different when it comes to synthetic rubber. Synthetic rubber uses manmade polymers. In fact, much of synthetic rubber is derived from petroleum.
As a result, synthetic rubber is not nearly as biodegradable. It is more likely to persist in the environment after disposal.
Just consider the effect of rubber worms which are used as fishing bait.
Unfortunately, these worms contain microplastics. When the line gets cut, the rubber ends up at the bottom of lakes and rivers. Once there, it does not decompose.
This means that hundreds of rubber worms can be found at the bottom of many popular fishing spots. This can cause significant disruption to the waterbed.
Tires are also a notable problem. Tires are not biodegradable, and given the prevalence of tires, their accumulation poses significant environmental risk. Millions of them are sitting in landfills.
Clearly, the type of rubber you choose has a big impact on the overall biodegradability of your product. If you are concerned about disposal, then be sure to do your research and make smart choices accordingly.
How Long Does Natural Rubber Take to Decompose?
Just because something will eventually decompose in the environment does not mean that the process will happen in a timely fashion. This can be the case with some types of rubber.
One example is rubber shoe bottoms. The soles of shoes are often made from rubber. However, when thrown out, it can take 80 years for some boot soles to decompose.
Rubber latex gloves are another case in point. While these items will decay, the process is prolonged. For this reason, latex gloves are not recommended for standard cold composting.
In a hot composting bin, latex will eventually decompose. However, the rate is very slow. The effect is similar for natural and synthetic latex.
It is important to be cautious around rubber that promises complete biodegradability. The market for green products is growing, but there is very little oversight to control the claims that are made.
Because of this, some products boast about their biodegradability but offer subpar results. Just consider the evidence of balloons (and for eco-friendly alternatives to balloons, check out this article).
Balloons may be advertised as natural and biodegradable, but when put to the test, they often fail to live up to the expectation. One example found that after 16 weeks in a compost bin, supposedly biodegradable balloons were still fully intact and unscathed.
This proves that biodegradability is not the same thing as a specific rate of decomposition. According to some studies, rubber balloons can remain fully intact for up to a year.
Rates of decomposition will be affected by the environment. For example, balloons in water tend to decompose somewhat faster than balloons on land.
Further analysis has revealed that natural rubber can take weeks or months to start decomposing.
However, this process is hindered by additives that are used in most rubber products. Research is ongoing to figure out the right mix of bacteria to aid in the decomposition process.
Overall, it is safe to say that even though natural rubber will decompose, it will take a long time to achieve significant results. This is another reason why it is important to carefully consider the environmental reality of rubber.
Is Vulcanized Rubber Biodegradable?
Another rubber variation worth your attention is vulcanized rubber. To vulcanize rubber, it is processed with intense heat.
When rubber is vulcanized, the molecular structure is altered. In this process, the links between the molecules are reinforced. The result is increased strength and elasticity.
You may have never heard of vulcanized rubber, but you have probably used it often. Vulcanized rubber is commonly used in car tires, bowling balls, shoe soles, hoses and more.
In many manufacturing settings, the added strength of vulcanization seems like an asset. However, when it is time for disposal, it poses certain risks.
Namely, vulcanized rubber is more resilient than natural rubber. This makes it less likely to decompose in the environment. This means that vulcanized rubber will sit in landfills for years after it is thrown away.
That being said, there is evidence that vulcanized rubber is eventually biodegradable. According to composting sources, it will decompose slowly in a hot composting bin. It decomposes slower than natural rubber by a significant margin.
Therefore, be judicious in your use of vulcanized rubber. Its environment impact is hard to overlook.
How Do You Dispose of Rubber?
As our discussion has shown, some types of rubber have some biodegradable properties, but it is not particularly suited for landfills or compost piles.
Therefore, we need alternative disposal methods for rubber.
Of most interest is recycling. There are three major recycling methods for rubber.
The first option is refurbishment. Because rubber is so resilient, it can often be refinished for its original purpose. For example, rubber tires can be retreaded.
Second, rubber can be repurposed. For instance, old rubber can be transformed into playground surfacing or used in asphalt for roads.
Finally, when rubber has no other purpose, it can be burned for energy or fuel. There are obviously significant drawbacks to doing this in an eco-friendly manner. Still, the fact that the rubber will not end up in a landfill is of importance.
There are a growing number of uses for recycled rubber. It can be used for medical gloves, livestock mats, sheds, turf infill, landscaping mulch and more.
In many cases, standard rubber cannot be thrown into your recycle bin. You will have to look for local recycling or repurposing centers to accept your rubber waste.
Some rubber recycling centers will be dedicated to specific types of rubber. In particular, there are a number of sources for recycling tires.
However, if you put in a little time and effort, you should be able to find good places to recycle most of your rubber waste.
The reality is that rubber is probably already a part of your life. Because of rubber’s widespread uses, it is imperative to understand and mitigate its overall environmental impact.
The key with rubber is to spend time sourcing your rubber responsibly. Then, be sure to investigate the best disposal methods in your area.
By investing this effort, you can use rubber while still minimizing your overall environmental impact.
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