Have you ever wondered where your car tires, rain boots, and balloons come from? They’re all rubber products but where does rubber even come from?
How it’s Made
The finished product of rubber stems back from the Hevea brasiliensis tree, otherwise known as the rubber tree. Rubber can also be created from a variety of trees and plants, but the Hevea brasiliensis tree is by far the most common and produces most of the rubber in the world. These trees are most commonly found in hot and moist regions such as Africa, South and Central America, and Asia. More than 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber supply comes from mainland Southeast Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, India, and more.
Natural rubber is extracted through tapping, a method in which someone makes small incisions directly into the bark of the rubber tree. Through these incisions, a milky sap will slowly drip out. This sap is referred to as latex. However, the latex gloves you might find in a hospital or even your own medicine cabinet is heavily processed.
Finding a rubber tree can be tricky as it needs to be roughly six years old and a minimum of six inches in diameter so that the latex can be properly harvested. When making the precise incision, the bark needs to be peeled back in a downward spiral manner around the tree, creating a slide for the sap to drip down. The process of the sap dripping down takes about five hours and is best completed during the night when temperatures are cool, ensuring that the raw latex does not coagulate. The latex sap from the trees is collected into a bucket directly from the tree and needs to be processed promptly, as this sticky liquid will soon congeal and make this substance unusable after some time.
Once the latex sap is fully collected, it gets brought to a processing area where it is then mixed with chemicals like ammonia and acid. It is then passed through rollers to remove excess water and left to hang on racks to dry for days at a time. The processed rubber sheets are shipped to factories across the globe, creating products that we commonly use like tires, gloves, and children’s toys.
Concerns in the Rubber Industry
The process of extracting rubber is fascinating and one that historically has taken up a lot of space, often creating a negative impact on species—both animal species and human populations.
Forests in the region of mainland Southeast Asia are often cleared to make room for growing rubber trees. These regions are also home to elephants, tigers, and other endangered species. They are among the most threatened forests in the world. The main threat is agriculture, as trees are cleared to make room for farms where palm oil, sugar, rice, corn, and—at a dramatically increasing rate—rubber trees are grown.
In recent years, with rubber demand rising, we’ve seen a worrying upsurge in forests in the region being cleared to make way for rubber plantations. There have also been clashes between the rubber industry and indigenous people and local communities, with reports of land grabs as well as poor working conditions.
What WWF is Doing to Support
WWF has become a founding member and Executive Committee member of the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber, a multi-stakeholder platform that strives to increase the supply and uptake of sustainable natural rubber in the global marketplace. Members of this platform include civil society groups, car and tire companies, and rubber producers. In 2016, Michelin — the world’s largest buyer of natural rubber — released a natural rubber policy, developed in partnership with WWF.
Tiremakers Pirelli, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Sumitomo, Continental, Yokohama, Hankook, and Toyo Tires have followed in their footsteps to ensure sustainable rubber production is a top priority. Automakers also are showing leadership. In May 2017, General Motors, the world’s third-largest automaker, became the first automaker to announce its intent to commit to responsible rubber sourcing. BMW and Toyota Motor Corporation (which, in 2016, entered into a five-year agreement with WWF that focuses on increasing the sustainability of natural resources, including natural rubber) have since done the same. Four companies have also committed to producing sustainable natural rubber: Barito, Socfin, Olam, and Halcyon Agri.
“The rubber industry is at critical juncture,” says Alistair Monument, Lead, Forest Practice. “It can either avoid large-scale deforestation that we’ve seen from production of other commodities. Or not—which would be a huge hit to the world’s most threatened forests. The platform is an excellent opportunity to work with a diverse group of people, from rubber farmers to rubber buyers, to ensure the natural rubber industry moves towards sustainability.”
WWF promotes sustainable natural rubber at two levels—with the companies that use rubber and the producers who grow rubber. At the company level, WWF’s priority is supporting the adoption and implementation of commitments to produce, source, and use sustainable natural rubber. In terms of producers, WWF has initiated projects in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Cambodia to demonstrate how rubber production can be done sustainably, from a social, environmental, and economic standpoint. In Cambodia, WWF has initiated a forum for stakeholders to discuss improvements to rubber production in the country. In Myanmar, WWF is tracking supply chains, developing sustainable rubber production strategies with the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Myanmar Rubber Planters and Producers Association, and is educating farmers about best management practices. In southern China, WWF is working with the government to return thousands of acres of unsustainable and illegal rubber plantations back into elephant habitat and to restore poorly managed rubber plantations to semi-natural forests.
Rubber can and should be produced without clearing natural forests. When done responsibly, rubber production increases biodiversity and carbon sequestration and reduces carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation. It also has the potential to completely avoid human and labor rights violations, as well as land grabs.