How natural rubber could be harming the world’s forests

(© Fair Rubber Association)© Fair Rubber AssociationNatural rubber is one of the many materials that we depend on forests for. Products made from rubber are abundant in our day to day lives, from our car tyres and the soles of our shoes, to hot water bottles and balloons. Despite this, many of us may struggle to picture how this strong, elastic material came to be from a forest , or understand how much we really depend on it. Here, we explore where rubber comes from, how it’s made, and why it’s essential we only purchase responsibly sourced rubber.

Rubber (© Martin Kunz)© Martin KunzNatural rubber comes from the sap of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis), also referred to as rubberwood, which are native to rainforests in the Amazon basin. Today, most natural rubber comes from plantations in Southeast Asia, where over 10 million smallholders produce around 85% of the world’s natural rubber supply.

Once a rubber tree reaches six years of age, the natural rubber manufacturing process can begin. The first step is to cut or score the bark of the tree, known as tapping, which causes the sap, called latex, to flow from the tree ready to be collected in cups. Next, the rubber is extracted in a process called coagulation, before being passed through rollers to remove any excess water. Layers of rubber are then either hung over racks in smokehouses or left to air dry, and after a few days are ready for processing which is essential to turn it into a usable, durable material. The method of processing varies depending on the intended use of the final product.

(© Fair Rubber Association)© Fair Rubber AssociationNatural rubber is used to manufacture over 50,000 rubber and latex products, and makes up more than 40% of the world’s rubber. The rest is synthetic and made from petroleum (a fossil fuel), which contributes to air, soil, and water pollution, and unlike natural rubber is not a renewable resource. Synthetic rubber is cheaper to produce but is weaker and less flexible, making natural rubber the preferred choice for important items like surgeons gloves and aeroplane tyres.

Natural rubber is an essential commodity for almost all manufacturing sectors, and over 20 million people in the producing countries rely directly on the sector for income. However, rubber production can negatively impact forests and communities if not managed responsibly. In 2017, over 11 million tonnes of natural rubber was harvested and consumption is expected to reach 19 million tonnes by 2025. The expansion of rubber plantations to keep up with global demand can be a driver of deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss, and there have been documented incidences of poor working conditions and child labour.

Consumers and businesses need not feel helpless, because as with wood, paper and other FSC-certified products, manufacturers and consumers who purchase FSC-certified latex or natural rubber can do so with the knowledge that it was produced in forests or plantations with safe working conditions and good community relations, without deforestation or other environmental damage.

To learn more, read these previous articles:

- FSC and the beautiful game - By Martin Kunz, Executive Secretary of the Fair Rubber Association and member of FSC.
- Global companies commit to sourcing responsible natural rubber
- Clarks shoes case study

© Forest Stewardship Council® · FSC® F000231