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Global Initiatives: Shaping Sustainable Practices

Natural rubber is something that is commonly used in numerous products that we use every day, including tires. Due to the rise in global demand, this renewable resource is becoming more and important every day, and the rubber industry has seen stead growth throughout the years.


Rubber is used to make a wide variety of products, which include, but are not limited to, medical equipment such as surgical gloves, tires for vehicles and airplanes, toys, footwear, adhesives, hoses, and more. As the demand increases for rubber, so does the demand for more sustainable practises within the industry.


When it comes to trends in the rubber industry, the automotive industry has one of the highest demands. Millions of tires are produced each year. Unfortunately, millions of tires also end up in landfills, which can be particularly hazardous to the environment. This is why sustainability is so important.

Understanding the Rubber Industry

The global production of rubber involves two types of rubber, natural and synthetic. Natural rubber comes from rubber trees, while synthetic rubber is made from petrochemicals. The largest rubber consumer in the world is China, followed by India, the EU, the US, Thailand, Japan, and Indonesia.


Natural rubber is important for the economies of several developing nations, with the main focus being the production and exportation countries throughout Southeast Asia. In fact, approximately 90 percent of the world's natural rubber production hails from these countries. The annual revenue is greater than $300 billion USD, and approximately 40 million people rely on this industry for their income, directly and indirectly through employment.


One of the biggest challenges for the rubber industry is sustainability. In particular, habitat destruction and deforestation as land is cleared to create rubber plantations. This causes many issues when it comes to biodiversity and the storage of carbon due to the fact that large areas of forests are being cleared to make way for rubber plantations.


Another issue is the usage of fertilizers and pesticides that can be quite damaging to ecosystems. Then, there are the social challenges, such as labour and land conflicts. It is necessary for the rubber industry to have sustainable practises in order to resolve these issues. When the natural rubber supply is environmentally and socially sustainable, we see ecosystems that are better preserved.


It is also important for rubber manufacturers to use the best harvesting practises, both in industry and on plantations. Sustainability can also help to uphold land rights and create a better well-being and working conditions for small farmers and their communities.

Let's take a closer look at some of the challenges within the rubber industry.

  • Deforestation – When land is converted for rubber plantations, there is often a significant loss of habitat and biodiversity.

  • Monoculture – Monoculture practises can lead to the degradation of soil health, as well as increasing vulnerability to diseases and pests.

  • Labour Issues – Low wages and substandard working conditions are found in some regions where rubber is produced, which in turn leads to social challenges.

  • Environmental Issues – The production of rubber leads to deforestation, the destruction of habitats, and the loss of biodiversity. The chemicals used can lead to damage to ecosystems and water quality.

  • Social Issues – Quite often, land conflicts arise from the production of rubber, as well as the displacement of indigenous communities. Another social issue is exploitative labour conditions, which can include low wages and a lack of workers' rights.

It is important that the rubber industry addresses these concerns, and this must be done through sustainable practises that include responsible resourcing.


Initiatives in Sustainable Rubber

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development created the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) in 2018. The object of the GPSNR is to address all of these concerns, as well as the economic sustainability of the supply chain. The main vision is to create a “natural rubber value chain” that includes equity, environmental responsibility, and fairness.


Many companies and organizations are promoting sustainability within the rubber industry. The “Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative (SNR-i)” is a collaboration between tire manufactures to improve sustainability within the industry. These manufactures include Michelin and Bridgestone. There are also companies such as Patagonia and The Body Shop that work on sourcing sustainable rubber.


Then there are certification systems, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Rainforest Alliance. Both systems are promoting responsibility in the resourcing of rubber and are setting the standards for responsible rubber production.


The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) promotes sustainable natural rubber in two ways, through the companies that use rubber and the producers of rubber. The WWF supports the adoption and usage of commitments by companies such as tire manufacturers, automakers, rubber producers, and others, with a particular commitment to tire manufacturers, due to the fact that they purchase more than 70 percent of all rubber.


For example, Michelin, which is the largest buyer of natural rubber globally and the second largest manufacturer of tires, was the first such company to take on the role of responsible rubber sourcing. Michelin partnered with the WWF in 2016 with the announcement of new sourcing policies. Since then, other tire manufacturers have come on board, including Yokohama, Continental, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Hankook, Toyo Tires, Sumitomo, and Pirelli.


Automakers are also leading the way in rubber sustainability. For instance, General Motors was the first automaker to commit to responsible rubber sourcing. Other companies that are focusing on this sustainability include Toyota Motor Corporation and BMW.

In British Columbia, Liberty Tire is the leader in the province's tire recycling initiative. Liberty Tire has more than 50 facilities located throughout North America, producing many products from recycled rubber, including crumb rubber, rubberized asphalt, and surfaces for playgrounds and running tracks. More than three billion pounds of rubber is recycled each year. Here are some more companies that are paving the way in rubber recycling.

  • Rubber Conversion – This Italian startup uses the devulcanization technology for recycling rubber waste to create other products that we use daily. Their Tool-Devulcanization allows other companies to create a circular economy for rubber through the reuse of product offcuts to create raw active ingredients used in active compounds.

  • Carbon Recovery – Pyrolysis of scrap tires converts particles into new compounds to create products through carbonization. This Australian startup eliminates oxygen, allowing waste tires to degrade easier at higher temperatures. The result is gaseous carbon compounds and solids that are converted into oil.

  • G3C Technologies – G3C Technologies (triple green conversion technologies) uses waste tire conversion technologies that can produce carbon black. The goal of this startup is to replace fossil feedstock materials for much of the carbon black production, as well as reduce carbon dioxide emission from this production.

  • BIG ATOM – Here is a British startup that uses a patent-pending reactor technology that aims to improve energy efficiency and product yields in rubber recycling. Tires are separated into rubber and steel products, and the chemical regeneration technology creates petrochemicals from the rubber.

  • Elysium Nordic – This Danish startup uses a patented microwave technology that recovers gas, oil, steel, and carbon black from ELT materials through the use of thermal decomposition. The first plant will have the capacity to recover as much as 12.000 tons of carbon black from 30.000 tons of ELT. Recovered gas will be used in the processes, so there will be less need for external energy sources. An added bonus is that it will add heat to the area's heating network.

Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber

The WWF, along with many companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as rubber traders and processors, have created the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber. The aim is to increase the supply of natural, sustainable rubber globally.


Platform members are working to develop sustainable natural rubber standards, along with guidance on and mechanisms for sustainable natural rubber commitments from other companies. The first Executive Committee meeting of this platform took place during the General Assembly meeting, which was held in March, 2019 in Singapore.


Conclusion

Both large and small-scale production systems are used to produce rubber. In fact, more than 85 percent of all rubber comes from small-scale farms and smallholder rubber producers. There are so many issues with sustainability within the rubber industry, including social, economic, and environmental sustainability.


While the rubber industry faces numerous challenges, including high input costs for the upkeep of rubber estates and creating rubber that is high quality, it is also taking steps to increase sustainability to ensure that these challenges are reduced as much as possible. Companies are being held accountable for their supply chains, and are addressing the issues mentioned in this article in order to protect the security of the supply chain.


It is being proven that the rubber industry can survive and function without destroying the natural environment, and without unfair practises. When properly managed, rubber production can actually help to decrease deforestation and increase biodiversity, as well as protect workers' rights.




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