Is Rubber Sustainable? Why It’s Not so Simple (Explained)

Savanna Stanfield

Being used for tires, gloves, and pencil erasers among other things, the widespread use of rubber is not showing any signs of slowing down.

The elasticity of rubber along with its durability and ability to be molded are just a few of the favorable qualities that rubber has.

But since the supply of and demand for rubber is still holding strong, we must ask ourselves if rubber is a sustainable material.

This can be a tricky question to answer, because there are different types of rubber and there are only certain ways that rubber can be harvested.

But, in this article we will try to answer that question and more about the sustainability of rubber by examining the facts of rubber harvesting and production.

Are Some Types Of Rubber More Sustainable Than Others?

There are two main types of rubber: natural and synthetic.

Natural rubber is sourced mainly from trees, while synthetic rubber is produced in a factory.

The general rule is that most natural products are more sustainable than the synthetic versions of the same product.

Natural products come from a renewable resource; in the case of natural rubber, that renewable resource is a plant.

Synthetic products (rubber included) are petroleum-based and combined with other chemicals so that they can be used effectively. Petroleum comes from crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource.

So to answer the question, natural rubber is more sustainable than synthetic rubber since natural rubber comes from plants.

However, there are concerns about how sustainable natural rubber actually is due to the potential environmental and social impacts of harvesting it.

Since becoming aware of some of the potential issues that harvesting rubber is causing, some companies are making more of an effort to try to produce sustainable rubber.

That means that rubber from one company could potentially be more sustainable than rubber from another company.

The Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber, hereby referred to as GPSNR, is made up of some very prominent companies as members, including automakers BMW and Ford and tire makers Bridgestone, Goodyear, and Michelin.

The ultimate goal of the GPSNR is to improve the overall economic, environmental, and social sustainability of rubber production.

Is Rubber Made Sustainably?

Natural rubber is made from the sap of a tropical tree found in the rainforests of South America and Asia.

The sap is known as latex, and it has to be harvested from the tree by scraping off the bark and letting the sap run out.

As long as too much bark isn’t scraped to collect too much sap at one time, the practice should be pretty sustainable. However, it isn’t that simple.

Rubber trees can take 7 years to fully mature. If supply and demand of rubber is too high, it could cause too much sap to be harvested at one time. 

If that were to happen, older trees could get tapped out before young trees have a chance to mature enough to harvest sap. That leads to more trees having to be planted and harvested at a faster rate.

How the trees are planted and cleared after use are also major factors when it comes to sustainability.

And once the sap is harvested, it is dried and turned into rubber sheets. Then it is processed to clean it and remove contaminants before shipping it out to various companies who will turn the rubber sheets into new products.

The need to harvest sap faster as well as the process of preparing the rubber for shipment is very labor intensive, and depending on where the rubber is from, workers get paid very little to harvest and process rubber.

This raises concerns about the social impact that harvesting rubber is having on some of the workers, especially during periods where supply and demand is higher.

Basically, the harvesting of natural rubber isn’t as sustainable as it could be.

Remember that there is also synthetic rubber that we need to question the sustainability of. Like most synthetic materials, synthetic rubber is a type of plastic.

Plastics can take on many different forms that are brought about by the type of chemical reaction that is used to create them.

But all plastics are derived from the same thing: crude oil. The collection of crude oil supplies will cause them to eventually run out.

The creation of synthetic rubber from non-renewable resources is not sustainable at all.

Is Rubber Eco Friendly?

Rubber is not as eco-friendly as it could be. This goes hand-in-hand with sustainability.

Since rubber is such a widely used product, that means that the demand for rubber stays pretty high.

A high demand means that more rubber trees need to be planted in order to meet the demand and the prices that come with it.

This is leading to deforestation because more land has to be cleared in order to plant large amounts of trees to harvest more rubber and meet demand. Deforestation creates habitat loss for many plant and animal species.

Rubber trees are not immune to damage from pests and diseases, which could wipe out large amounts of trees at one time. 

This means that pesticides and herbicides are often used on trees which lower the eco-friendliness as well as sustainability of natural rubber.

Synthetic rubber is not eco-friendly either. The collection of crude oil also creates habitat destruction, and the production of rubber from crude oil creates air pollution and is a major contributor to climate change.

Is Rubber Biodegradable?

Some types of rubber are biodegradable and others aren’t. 

Natural rubber is biodegradable since it comes from a plant source. However, just because it is biodegradable, it doesn’t mean that it will biodegrade quickly.

Synthetic rubber is not biodegradable since it is a type of plastic. Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

When and if it eventually does, harmful chemicals will be released into the environment.

Before you try to biodegrade rubber, it is important that you know what type of rubber it is.

Check out our other article, Is Rubber Biodegradable, for more information.

Is Rubber Compostable?

Since it is biodegradable, natural rubber can also be composted.

However, rubber can be very slow to both biodegrade and compost and can take weeks to even start decomposing.

Synthetic rubber is not compostable because it can potentially release harmful chemicals into the compost.

Can Rubber Be Recycled?

Rubber can be recycled, and recycling is actually one of the preferred disposal methods for rubber.

Recycling rubber uses less energy than creating new synthetic rubber and it reduces the need to harvest more natural rubber.

Used tires are one of the most recycled rubber materials. In fact, the United States recycles an estimated 250 million tires annually.

Some uses for recycled rubber include softer flooring and playground surfaces that reduces the impact of being on your feet as well as the risk of injury.

There are many more uses for recycled rubber as well. But if you want to recycle rubber, it usually needs to be taken to a recycling facility instead of being picked up by your recycling service.

Are There More Sustainable Alternatives To Rubber?

It was previously mentioned that the GPSNR is actively looking for more sustainable ways to produce rubber so that it lowers the negative environmental impact.

However, producing rubber sustainably is an expensive and time consuming process so it isn’t feasible for everyone.

And if rubber costs more to harvest and produce, it raises the cost to consumers as well.

While some companies are taking steps toward sustainable rubber production from rubber trees, it will likely take awhile before it is completely sustainable.

Since synthetic rubber isn’t sustainable either, this raises the need to create more ways that natural rubber can be created that are different from the traditional rubber tree.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the latex sap that is harvested to make rubber isn’t just produced by trees. 

Latex is produced by many types of plants, including some plants in the milkweed, mulberry, and sunflower families among others.

An example of one of these plants is the dandelion. Dandelions are found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, but one specific variety from Russia contains the same type of latex sap that is used in production of natural rubber.

The Continental tire company, who are members of the GPSNR, are looking at ways to make tires from the latex found in this dandelion sometime in the near future.

Conclusion

Although natural rubber comes from a renewable resource, it is not one of the more sustainable natural products.

The harvesting of rubber is very land and labor intensive and isn’t very eco-friendly.

But luckily, more companies are becoming aware of the potential environmental impacts and are making an effort to try to change that.

The dandelion, an unsuspecting plant that many think is just a weed, could soon be part of the solution to this problem.

But until then, we can just try to recycle and reuse rubber as much as we can to try to lower the impact on the environment.

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