We might not think about rubber as much as we think about plastic products, but rubber really is everywhere.
From our car tires to the soles of our shoes, rubber permeates everyday life thanks to its natural versatility, elasticity, and durability. And much like glass, it has done so for centuries.
The earliest use of natural rubber can be dated back to indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, while the first rubber samples began to be studied in Europe in the 1700s. Its everyday use escalated even more after WW1, as the automobile industry began using rubber for tire manufacturing and other key industries like medical equipment, plumbing, and flooring.
The versatility and unique properties of rubber make it the perfect material for electrical isolation and heat resistance.
But is it sustainable or is rubber bad for the environment?
Let us walk you through how rubber is made and what types of rubber are most commonly used in everyday items, before we move on to the environmental impact this popular material has on our planet.
Where does rubber come from?
There are two main types of rubber used to manufacture a wide variety of items:
- Natural rubber
- Synthetic rubber
Natural rubber comes from trees and plants.
There are as many as 200 plants known to produce the white milky substance, known as latex, which is used to create natural rubber.
However, the overwhelming majority of rubber manufactured today comes from one species, the Hevea brasiliensis. Luckily, this species is also known as rubber tree – a way catchier name to remember I think you’ll agree!
In order to create rubber from latex, manufacturers have to create a reaction with acid to promote coagulation, dry the mixture in slabs, and process it through with mechanical rollers to make it more pliable.
At the end of this stage, sulphur is added to the material and the raw rubber is cooked in an autoclave to produce the final product. You can then make well-known latex products such as rubber bands, household gloves and balloons.
Synthetic rubber, on the other hand, is made using petrochemicals like petroleum and natural gas, employing a process called vulcanisation.
During this process, a hydrocarbon mixture derived from petrochemicals is combined with natural gases to create different types of synthetic rubber polymers. The most common synthetic rubber today is Neoprene.
Of course, any synthetic material that uses fossil fuels as a main ingredient aren’t particularly good for the environment.
Most latex used today comes from East Asia and Southeast Asia, while Russia, Germany, and the UK are leaders in the production of synthetic rubber.
Different types of rubber
While the categories of synthetic and natural rubber make for a general differentiation between rubber products, there are actually many different types of chemical rubber used in a variety of industries. They also have different impacts on the environment.
Here are some of the most common.
Neoprene is the undiscussed leader of synthetic rubber, as well as the oldest man-made rubber in the industry.
The main reason why neoprene rubber has remained on top for so long comes down to its properties.
It is highly elastic, resistant to all types of degradation, as well as corrosion and heat. This makes it the perfect base material for adhesives, insole padding, wet suits, and safety gloves.
Neoprene is also used to create corrosion-resistant coatings and high-pressure gaskets for door and window seals.
Silicone is another commonly used man-made rubber material. It’s known for its resistance to extreme temperatures, incredible biocompatibility and UV radiation resistance.
Silicone rubber is often found in medical and protective equipment such as gloves and masks, as well as everyday care items such as cosmetic applicators and food containers.
You’ll also spot silicone in footwear, home repair products, hardware, and even undergarments!
If you want to know more, have a read of this blog to see if silicone is eco friendly.
Nitrile rubber is often considered the most economical type of synthetic rubber., and it’s is known for its versatility and high resistance to heat, compression, and wear.
For this reason, nitrile is sometimes preferred to silicone as the base material for gloves and automotive products. It is considered a lot more resistant than silicone in terms of structural integrity, as well as safer for medical use as it does not possess the allergenic qualities of silicone latex.
You’ll find nitrile rubber in disposable gloves, hoses, O-rings, adhesives, synthetic leather, and rubber seals.
How does rubber impact the environment?
So, now that you know how rubber is made and what it’s used for, let’s get to the pressing question: Is rubber bad for the environment?
As you might have already guessed, the environmental impact that natural rubber and synthetic rubber have on the planet is not the same.
Tree-derived natural rubber is generally considered a more eco-friendly option than fossil fuel products like synthetic rubber and plastic.
Latex is derived from natural and renewable sources, and in the case of the Amazonian rubber tree, the extraction operations are conducted in a sustainable manner.
Rubber trees can not only be grown as a sustainable crop, but also help mitigate the consequences of increasing emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow. This is much in the same way that cork trees are sustainably managed and soak up CO2 over their lifetime.
On top of natural rubber, recycled rubber derived from rubber tree latex is also considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to synthetic products. This is because it can easily be reused to manufacture products like tires.
Collecting latex, however, is far from an easy, cheap and quick job, so consumers are quite unlikely to find products made of 100% natural rubber. Most rubber items are made from a mix of natural and man-made rubber.
Unsurprisingly, the production of synthetic rubber has a significant impact on our environment Like all plastics, it is produced from non-renewable sources, contributing to our increasing GHG emissions and landfill pollution. In this way, synthetic rubber is just as bad as plastic products.
So, is rubber a sustainable material?
All in all, the answer to the ‘is rubber bad for the environment?’ question is hard to determine.
On one hand, natural rubber is biodegradable and made from renewable sources, making for a fairly eco-friendly material with little impact on our planet.
On the other hand however, determining just how sustainable latex production really is can be a challenge. Different countries cultivate their rubber trees in different ways, and not all techniques can be as efficient when it comes to planting and harvesting at the right time.
Not to mention, questions have been raised when it comes to demand and supply, as the process can be taxing on workers and require supplementation of synthetic rubber to meet increasing industry demand.
In the case of synthetic rubber, the answer is pretty clear-cut. Man-made rubber is not a sustainable product, as it is made from non-renewable sources and is hard to recycle locally.
Producing all the rubber we need sustainably is an expensive ordeal, but it can be done. As more companies explore increasingly sustainable options, we’ll just have to keep an eye on the latest news to make the most eco-friendly choice we can!
If you found that interesting, read more like that here…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.