When we think of rubber products, tires often come to mind. Indeed, creating tires is one of the most common uses of rubber. As such, one might wonder if rubber is a sustainable material. Tires, though recyclable, use plenty of resources to produce, after all. The tire industry consumes over 3 billion pounds of rubber to produce 250 million tires each year. It doesn’t take an expert to tell that such a process leaves a considerable carbon footprint.
Even if tire manufacturers adopt sustainable strategies, most don’t control the farms that supply them rubber. They only have the farm owners’ word that they adhere to sustainability and environmental principles. So if you want to be a manufacturer of rubber products, here’s what you need to know about the material and its sustainable uses:
Types of Rubber
Natural rubber is made from latex, a runny, white liquid harvested from the rubber tree. This tree helps eliminate and balance carbon dioxide from the air. Common products made from natural rubber are rubber sheets and mats.
Manufacturing synthetic rubber uses petrochemicals, unlike natural rubber. For that reason, it isn’t a sustainable option. Tires and other car parts are usually made of synthetic rubber, another reason the automotive industry falls short on green efforts.
As its name suggests, recycled rubber comes from discarded rubber products. Hence it’s sustainable. Eco-friendly tires can be made of recycled rubber, and so can beach balls, rubber shoes, and hot water balls. Even though it’s recycled, this type of rubber is sturdy and tough in harsh conditions.
Reclaimed rubber comes from discarded and rejected elastomers. It goes through an industrial autoclave for rubber vulcanization. The vulcanization process is when the rubber is heated with sulfur, accelerator, and activator at 140 to 160 degrees Celsius. This makes reclaimed rubber — and all rubber products, for that matter — more elastic, durable, weather-resistant, and tougher.
The Environmental Impact of Rubber
Whether manufacturing rubber is eco-friendly or not depends on the type used. Natural rubber, without question, is a sustainable option because it’s plant-based. On the other hand, synthetic rubber involves the heavy use of chemicals, so it creates emissions. And, of course, recycled and reclaimed rubber help reduce the rubber waste that ends up in landfills.
However, just because certain types of rubber are sustainable doesn’t mean they don’t leave any damage. Latex gloves, for example, can end up in oceans after being disposed of. Old tires, toys, boots, and school supplies are the same. If consumers don’t recycle or reuse their rubber products, they’ll still harm the environment, regardless of whether they’re sustainably produced or not.
Sustainable Uses of Rubber
Rubber products are essential to our daily lives, so we can’t just stop using them. To make rubber better for the environment, here are some examples of how the following products can be used sustainably:
Doctors and other healthcare professionals use latex gloves to protect themselves from dangerous substances. Sadly, latex gloves can neither be recycled nor reused because of this. Recycling centers will reject them because they are contaminated.
On the brighter side, latex gloves are biodegradable. So even if they end up as waste, they will decompose over time. To prevent them from going to the ocean, put them in a compost pile, or break them down into pieces. This will quicken their decomposition process, allowing marine animals to avoid ingesting them.
Clothing and Personal Products
Wellington boots, dishwashing gloves, Lycra clothing, shoe soles, and certain contraceptives are made of rubber. The clothing products can be recycled when they’re already unwanted. They can create new rubber products, like phone cases, shoes, or toys.
On the other hand, personal rubber products can also be contaminated like gloves, so they can’t be qualified for recycling. Products like condoms are often flushed down the toilet after use. But this habit can wreak havoc on sewage systems, not to mention that it also endangers marine life. So instead of flushing them down, consider composting them, especially if they’re made from natural latex.
Rubber bearings, conveyor belts, hoses, pipe seal rings, and more are usually designed to last, so industrial facilities that use them can keep them for long periods. When they degrade, these products can be recycled and made new again through vulcanization. That way, no industrial rubber products can end up in landfills and oceans.
It may be impossible to make rubber 100% sustainable, but if we take measures to maximize its purpose, we can reduce its impact on the environment. And of course, let’s stick to natural rubber as much as we can. Using plant-based resources is always a green choice.