If you start counting how many products you own that are made or contain rubber, you will soon realise that rubber is as versatile a material as wood or plastic. In today’s world, we use rubber to make anything from elastic bands, car tires and pencil erasers to surfing wetsuits, swimming caps, and dishwasher hoses . Indeed, rubber is used to make about 50,000 different products that we use on a daily basis .
For over 1000 years, we retrieved rubber from natural sources, but today, demand for rubber is so high that synthetic rubber is very commonly used, as well. While artificially made rubber is gaining in popularity, natural rubber is still being used. Out of the 25 million tonnes of rubber that are produced each year, 30% is natural . Inevitably, that comes at a cost – and regrettably it is our wildlife that pays the price.
Where does natural rubber come from?
Natural rubber comes from a special kind of tree found South East Asia and Africa. Workers tap the matured rubber trees by making an incision which causes a milky fluid called latex to start flowing slowly. The latex is collected in pails and then the water is removed from it so that it can be turned into raw rubber. The average rubber tree can yield latex over 25 years . In contrast, synthetic rubber is made using petroleum, crude oil and different types of gasses .
Environmental impact of increasing demand for rubber
As rubber has gained in popularity and demand, areas where the rubber trees grow have come under extreme pressure. Often, rubber trees are harvested at unsustainable levels but even more often land is claimed to make space of rubber trees and as a result local flora and fauna lose their natural habitat. A recent study conducted by the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia found that “between 4.3 and 8.5 million hectares of new plantations will be required to meet projected demand by 2024 [4,5].” This is by no means an insignificant chunk of land when right-point-five million hectares is about the size of the land area of Austria .
It is expected that forest areas from that places such as Java and Bali to Vietnam, Southwest China and the Philippines will be most seriously affected. As a result of this predicted change in land use, significant areas of Asian forests, including many protected areas, will come under threat. The species they provide shelter for will also lose out: the same study predicted a decline of up to 75% in the numbers of bird, bat and beetle species in those areas . What is more already endangered species such as the white-shouldered ibis, the yellow-cheeked crested gibbon and the clouded leopard will come under further pressure from the resulting habitat loss.
Given how catastrophic the consequences of this expansion are likely to be, scientists are calling on industry to adopt rigid sustainability criteria. The key player is the tyre industry which consumers about 70% of all natural rubber – with rising demands for both vehicles and aeroplane tyres, it is clear that much they will be among the ones to profit as a result of this deforestation.
What can be done?
There is much that can be done to make rubber production more wildlife-friendly by adopting anything from more integrated agro-forestry practices – which would mean mixing rubber with other trees – to retaining patches of natural vegetation along rivers or in small conservation set-asides, as is done in organic farms across Europe .
Michelin, a world-renowned tyre manufacturer, initiated a programme to protect rubber plantations from resistant pests back in the 1990’s. Today, it has taken further commitments in terms of safeguarding biodiversity in the lands it owns. For example, Michelin’s rubber forest in Bahia, Brazil spans over 22,000 acres and it is located in one of the most biodiversity rich places in the world, second only to the Amazon. In southern Bahia, there are 458 tree species in one hectare while new species are still being discovered regularly. Unfortunately, the Atlantic forest is also one of the world’s most endangered forests as centuries of deforestation, poaching and other human development activities have eliminated 95% of the original woods. Michelin is today committed to preserving what’s left .
In addition to that, Michelin has taken a further step: it has now adopted the first major global policy for sustainable natural rubber, developed in partnership with WWF-France. It is considered that this move will substantially curb one of the leading causes of deforestation in Southeast Asia, where most of the world’s natural rubber comes from . Michelin’s move was followed by a similar announcement by General Motors who have now committed to developing tire procurement guidelines that aim to ensure zero deforestation as well as upholding human and labour rights throughout their supply chain .
These developments are certainly a relief as they provide hope that the dire predictions regarding deforestation do not need to materialise. But the danger will not be averted until all major tyre manufacturers and their key customers – mainly car manufacturers – commit to ambitious standards regarding sustainable rubber and adopt a policy of zero deforestation.