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Can rubber ever be green?

The environmental costs of rubber tyres and how new materials promise to improve this

Rubber has changed the world for good and bad. Its use in tyres is still essential to keep us all moving, but it has a history of environmental and social damage, in all stages of its farming production, use and disposal.

While a number of initiatives are trying to reduce rubber’s footprint, it may be that alternative materials are the only way to really ‘green’ the tyre industry.

In this article, we will look at how rubber became such an important feature of the modern world, the environmental costs that brought with it, and new technology that could revolutionise the way we produce tyres. You can find the following topics:

What are rubber tyres made of?

A history of rubber production

Rubber has a long history and was first brought to European attention by Christopher Columbus who discovered the Maya people were using it to make toys. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that its unique properties really began to find a use in the industrialising world.

Charles Goodyear discovered that, mixed with a little sulphur, rubber vulcanised and became much stronger and less sticky. Soon the shock absorbent potential of rubber was being applied to making wheeled transportation more comfortable. In 1888 John Boyd Dunlop received a patent for the first pneumatic tyre, an invention that quickly proved its worth, winning several bicycle races.

While rubber was discovered and first farmed in South America, it is Southeast Asia where most of the world’s rubber plantations were established. This typically colonial industry paid scant regard to the needs of local peoples and ecosystems as it fed an ever-growing demand for tyres.

What Rubber Tyres are made of now

Currently, natural rubber is still used in nearly all auto tyres, but synthetic rubber has also become a major ingredient.

In 1909 German chemist Fritz Hofmann, working for the German chemical company Bayer, invented the first commercial synthetic rubber. Not long after it started being used in car tyres, a process that was intensified during the second world war as supply lines to plantations were threatened.

From left to right: Natural rubber from rubber trees, Synthetic rubber used for seals, Vulcanised rubber in tyres

Today most car tyres contain synthetic rubber and natural rubber (typically about 19 percent natural rubber and 24 percent synthetic rubber) with the rest made up of metal and other compounds.

The environmental and social impact of rubber

The farming and production of natural rubber has had a devastating impact on the environment with large forest clearances to create plantations. These usually become mono-cultures, degrading the habitat and soil and polluting the local environment with the use of chemicals. Socially too the plantations have a terrible track record that includes the use of slave labour and still see local farmers and labourers underpaid to this day.

The competition between relatively small-scale growers and the instability of global rubber prices are some of the factors that afflict these farmers. Poor education is another. Overall, it is a sector where change is hard and renewable and sustainable solutions are only slowly being realised. The World Wildlife Fund is at the forefront of efforts to improve this and has succeeded in getting some big-name tyre manufacturers to sign up to the WWF initiative on sustainable rubber production. However, there is still a long way to go.

Meanwhile, the demand for rubber only grows. Since 1990, global rubber production has trebled with more than 70% of that going into making tyres.

The CO2 impact of rubber

As we’ve already seen, modern tyres are made up of a mix of natural and synthetic rubbers. The synthetic materials in your average car tyre require about 7 gallons of oil to make, while a truck tyres take 22 gallons.

Synthetic rubber production has a significant environmental impact due to the use of petrochemicals, energy-intensive processes, and the generation of hazardous waste. Some estimates suggest that the production of one ton of synthetic rubber can generate more than 2.5 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.

The CO2 impact of car tyres is further exacerbated by the energy mix in some of the countries where natural rubber is treated. Many of the plants in South East Asia are powered by relatively ‘dirty’ energy such as coal.

However, the environmental impact of tyres does not end with their production. Their usage and disposal also have an impact:

Worse than exhaust fumes and plastic bags? The impact of microplastics and particulates from rubber tyres

The environmental implications of tyre wear are only recently becoming fully understood or receiving the attention they deserve. This is in part because other auto-pollutants are declining with modern cars becoming more efficient, less polluting or fully electric. It is also because modern cars, especially electric ones are getting heavier and causing more tyre wear as a consequence.

It has been estimated that a third or more of all microplastics found in the ocean come from tyres, damaging aquatic life and ecosystems. Amazingly, this all comes from the friction between rubber and road as a tyre degrades over time.

kt/a = Kilo Tons per Annum

Source: Tyre and road wear particles – A calculation of generation, transport and release to water and soil with special regard to German roads

Tyre wear on road surfaces is also an issue in local air pollution as tiny carcinogens are thrown into the air. These particulates can get deep into our lungs and be very dangerous for human health. Extraordinarily, the Guardian recently reported that car tyre wear may already be a bigger local air polluter than exhaust emissions.

Disposing of rubber tyres: when recycling isn’t so green

Rubber tyres are not biodegradable and every year 1.5 billion come to the end of their useful life (this includes tyres that have been re-treaded, and worn out again). There are some positive trends with the recycling of tire scraps into products such as playgrounds, sports fields, and even roads and pavements (have you noticed your pavements getting bouncier?) Also, many fewer tyres going to landfills than in the past.

However, a great many old tyres are burned to generate energy, releasing lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere along with a number of toxic pollutants such as zinc and chlorine. This counts as recycling in published figures and contributes to claims by the industry that upwards of 90% of ‘end of life’ tyres are recycled.

Whether this is really good for the environment depends on the type of incinerator used and how the emissions are managed. Many incinerators are located in poorer countries (including some that have been exploited for decades in the rubber trade), where standards in emission control may not be so exacting. So, while using old tyres to fuel power generation sounds like an environmental win, the reality is often less positive. Many Western countries ship large quantities of old tyres to poorer countries where they are burned in sub-optimal plants, releasing toxins into the local environment. These tyres are then counted as ‘recycled’ waste in their official figures.

A new way for tyres. 0% rubber in our tyres

While there are initiatives to clean up the rubber industry, it remains a very substantial polluter. Few if any of the solutions thus far have challenged the basic orthodoxy that tyres are produced from a mixture of natural and synthetic rubber.

This is set to change. After more than eight years of experience with innovative tyre solutions, reTyre is producing the most sustainable tyres in history – by all measures. By use of new materials, more energy efficient and precise manufacturing and local production reTyre is able to reduce GHG emissions and produce 100% reusable tyres.

What’s more, the finished product promises to produce tyres of good or better quality than current production norms.

If this sounds too good to be true, well it isn’t.

Find out more about sustainable material

Natural rubber is a widely used commodity found in countless essential products. Since rubber is a renewable resource, it is becoming increasingly important to produce and process sustainably due to rising global demand.

The rubber industry is an important resource-based sector globally. It has witnessed steady and strong growth over the years. The future and present of the rubber industry are tied to the global economy because rubber is used so often in tyres and non-tire applications.

Rubber is used in a wide variety of products including medical equipment, surgical gloves, airplane and car tyres, clothing, toys, footwear, crap tubes, adhesives, hoses, gaskets, and roll coverings, and so on. One of the most important trends in the rubber market is the increasing demand from the automotive industry. 

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The different types of hoses

According to Verified Market Research, the size of the global industrial rubber market was USD 31.40 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach USD 46.66 billion by 2030. It is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.51% from 2022 to 2030. However, the overall contribution of the sector to the global economy is very promising. Some studies highlighted that this sector generates over USD 300 billion a year and supports 40 million people including their families through direct and indirect employment.  

The expansion of rubber plantations, however, has some negative social and environmental impacts such as deforestation or conversion of natural forests, pollution, the displacement of local communities, unsustainable pricing, the use of child labour, and gender inequality.

A transformation is needed for the rubber industry

Rubber is produced in small and large-scale production systems. More than 85% of rubber comes from the unorganised sector, which is mostly made up of small-scale farms or smallholder rubber producers.

As per the study conducted in 2016, the rubber industry has a lot of issues with social, economic, and environmental sustainability. These issues mostly have to do with smallholders' livelihoods, unsafe working conditions, a lack of safety standards, inadequate use of toxic chemicals, discrimination and pay disparities caused by gender inequality, long working hours, child exploitation, and problems with migrant workers.

Because of this, the industry faces several challenges, such as high input costs for maintaining rubber estates and making high-quality rubber, a lack of skilled workers, and higher wages because the sheeting, drying, pressing, and refining processes take longer.

Besides that, smallholders or rubber trappers also encounter several other issues, such as high production costs that are a direct result of the extensive use of chemical inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, and water. Due to the high input costs, they are often forced to charge prices that are not competitive. This makes it more expensive to produce and process field latex after harvesting.  

The latex processing industry is a major contributor to pollution and has negative health effects on the smallholder population. Further, they also lack the financial resources to purchase the necessary safety and personal protective equipment (PPE) that would allow them to work in a harm-free environment.

As companies are held more and more accountable for their whole supply chain, these issues, if not addressed, pose serious risks to their reputation and supply chain security. 

Human and labour rights violations, as well as deforestation and land grabbing, have seen to be linked to the production of natural rubber.  

The rubber industry, however, can and should function without resorting to the destruction of the natural environment. If managed properly, rubber production can decrease deforestation and its associated carbon dioxide emissions while simultaneously boosting biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Additionally, it can prevent land grabs and violations of workers' rights.

The bottleneck

To reduce environmental and social risks, rubber producers and buyers need to work together to make sure that rubber production is sustainable. To make rubber less harmful to the environment and socially beneficial, rubber producers and buyers need to meet certain sustainability criteria.

However, smallholders often find it hard to meet these sustainability criteria by getting certified because of a lack of information about the processes, an inability to pay high costs for the services, and a general lack of understanding of the importance & benefits of getting certified.

As per the report Consumption Linkage for Natural Rubber from Smallholders: Current Status and Policy Aspects (April 2021), despite the extensive involvement of smallholders in the rubber industry, there is a lack of data and information on the supply chain of natural rubber.

Furthermore, the leading certification systems are not particularly accommodating to the rubber industry due to their stringent rules and regulations. The result is that it is not easy for many rubber operations and producers to follow several detailed steps and processes. 

"Since the rubber sector is unorganised, mainly dominated by smallholders, traceability is the biggest challenge in this sector. Collaboration with smallholders is important in ensuring the inclusion of smallholders into certification schemes”, said Phuc Xuan To, Senior Policy Analyst at Forest Trends. 

Phuc also pointed out an example of Vietnam - the world's third-largest producer. Currently, Vietnam has approximately 932,000 ha of rubber, of which the smallholder area accounts for more than 51%. The remaining area is owned by state and private rubber companies, almost 40% and 9.5%, respectively. 

"Vietnam’s rubber supply chains are complex, triggered by different sources (e.g., imports, smallholders, companies), multiple actors participating in the chains, and a limited level of control regarding their legality and quality. This makes traceability the biggest challenge in this sector", he added.

The road to sustainability

As a large share of natural rubber is grown by millions of smallholder farmers, sustainability issues are difficult to address. To make it easier to address this challenge and meet the demand for verification of sustainable land-use practices, Preferred by Nature has developed an adaptation of the Sustainability Framework for the rubber industry. The Framework includes 28 sustainability criteria and takes a holistic approach to address sustainability challenges for various commodities, including rubber, on multiple levels.

The Framework covers all the key sustainability issues, from child labour, pesticides, and living wages, to deforestation, climate change, and gender equity. Using the Framework as the guidelines, businesses of any size or even smallholders, and landowners can implement sustainable business practices. This tool can be used for commodities all over the world. It works as a universal framework that can be customised for each commodity, allowing for more focused and relevant use.

The Framework has huge potential to define deforestation-free rubber markets. It provides a mechanism for companies to actively participate in improving their processes and chart a course for the future, including a path toward standard compliance. The Framework adds new dimensions, like the climate and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and makes it easier for businesses to investigate certain legal parts in more depth. 

The Framework has been updated to match the newly approved EU regulation on deforestation-free supply chains. This means that companies that want to meet these requirements can use the Framework as a benchmark or guidance for their due diligence system.

Preferred by Nature is committed to protecting natural resources and supporting responsible trade of climate and forest impact commodities. The organisation is also an active member of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR). 

Setting an example

Kelani Valley Plantations PLC (KVPL), a Sri Lankan Tea and Rubber Plantations Company, has led by example by verifying its operations against the Framework and earning the first-ever Sustainability Framework Certificate.

KVPL is committed to being a leader in the sustainable rubber industry, and the certification received from Preferred by Nature is a significant step in that direction.  

"At Preferred by Nature, we are committed to preserving our natural resources, protecting the environment, and helping local communities. The fast growth of the rubber market calls for a plan to use rubber as a natural resource efficiently and carefully and to improve how it is grown”, said Indu Bikal Sapkota, Senior Forestry Expert.

“The Sustainability Framework can be a game changer for rubber producers and buyers if used properly”, he added.

The article was first published at Agrigate Global. 

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