Natural rubber is being used in a wide variety of sustainable products – from yoga mats to engineering applications! However, its frequent use has also led to the development of synthetic alternatives harmful to the environment. How does natural rubber differ from its synthetic counterpart? And what makes it a great eco-friendly material? Let us answer your questions in this article.
How is natural rubber made?
Natural rubber comes from a milky liquid called latex, which can be harvested from a wide variety of different plants. While in theory, latex from any of those plants can be used, in practice, 99% of rubber is made from the latex of hevea brasiliensis – the (appropriately named) rubber tree. Natural rubber is free from any toxic chemicals or petroleum compounds and needs no artificial softening or colour. While durable when it is used, it biodegrades once disposed of.
Let’s talk a little more about the rubber tree. It is a truly exceptional species and in nature, it can reach the lifespan of up to 100 years and grow as tall as 140 feet (43 metres). However, when planted to extract latex, their growth is restricted by the process of extracting latex, which leads them to grow much shorter. Rubber trees also aid biodiversity in the region, by attracting a large variety of plant and animal species – both when planted for latex extraction and in nature.
While the sourcing, use and disposal of natural rubber are all eco-friendly and will fit in great with a sustainable lifestyle, beware of synthetic rubber. It’s made from petrochemicals and some of its most common varieties include PVC, PVA, polyacrylics, neoprene or polyurethane. Many of these are associated with the release of harmful toxins in the production process, such as dioxins or chlorine. They also do not naturally biodegrade, polluting our planet for hundreds of years to come.
The advantages of natural rubber
As stated before, natural rubber is made from latex extracted from the rubber tree. These trees don’t have to be cut down to extract latex – they can be tapped after around 6 years of growth and typically reach the age of around 12 years before being replaced with new saplings. The harvesting of latex has minimal environmental impact thanks to the tapping technique and while the tree is growing, it helps clean our air by absorbing pollutants such as sulphur dioxide or ammonia and slow down climate change by consuming CO2 to produce oxygen. After the tree needs to be cut down, it can also find an additional purpose in woodworking. However, we need to keep an eye out and watch out for any rubber tree plantations which might be destroying native vegetation to expand the land used to produce latex as natural rubber becomes more and more popular.
As we mentioned before, natural rubber biodegrades and leaves nothing behind once it is discarded. This is a great advantage when comparing it to synthetic rubber or plastic, which both take a long time to biodegrade, often also releasing microscopic plastic particles into the environment. Besides its biodegradability, natural rubber also has the potential to be recycled, which makes it even more sustainable. Compared to this, the recycling of synthetic rubber is possible but the process is much more challenging.
Overall, natural rubber is a great sustainable material with many uses. However, synthetic rubber now presents most of the market and there are some environmental challenges when it comes to expanding natural rubber production. Therefore, we should be paying more attention to the option to recycle existing rubber, to make use of the material we already have.