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Business Unusual

It has not been a good year for rubber

12 August 2020 7:15 PM

The wheels may be coming off for the substance gets us around the world

We made a mistake with rubber that may prove difficult to erase. We make too much of it in the wrong place and don’t appreciate just how big a problem it will be if the industry collapses.

Before we get to the problem it helps to give some history of how we got here. From an oddity that has been used in South America for a very long time to create what is likely the first ball sport and to waterproof clothing, it was taken to Europe when its ability to remove pencil marks saw it become known as rubber.

Later when the year without a summer thanks to a volcano resulted in a famine in Europe and also the story of Frankenstein’s Monster and because there was not enough feed for animals including horses, the invention of a cart of one. Rather than four wheels on this new wagon, it had just two wheels, a bicycle. Pushing yourself along on a hard saddle and wooden wheels were not going to win many cycling fans, but adding a layer of rubber to the wheels and you had a winner.

A rubber revolution

Rubber’s next revolution (there will be a few more puns I think) came with the industrial revolution, rubber belts were the perfect thing to connect the steam engines to the drive shafts that powered a manufacturing boom.

Using the idea from the bicycle wheels saw cars and trucks get tires. Charles Goodyear long before the demand for tires had begun to spike, the self-taught chemist believed that rubber still had some new properties to discover. He was right and thanks to an accidental discovery of overheating some rubber and sulphur he found that he could produce something that was still elastic but also very hard-wearing. You might think he made a packet with Goodyear tires still being a major supplier, but he died in debt with the company only using his name to acknowledge his work.

By the time, Model T Ford’s were flooding the roads the seeds for rubbers first collapse were taking hold in Brazil. Rubber trees come from the Amazon jungle and typically grow with hundreds of other kinds of trees, but when all other trees were removed to only grow rubber, the risk of a disease or pests attacking the crop and running amok grows and it was a fungus which destroys the leaves that ruined huge plantations.

Rubber falls flat

It was a disaster for South America but colonising European countries had seen the opportunity and started planting new plantations in Africa and Southeast Asia. Belgium’s king was particularly cruel in how he ruthlessly extracted the rubber. If not enough rubber was produced which was required from locals in the form of a tax, you would have your hand cut-off. Belgium was so insistent on getting the maximum amount of rubber that those set the task to ensure the rubber was collected had to show the hands collected. The perverse incentive at one point resulted in the enforcers simply collecting hands as they were easier to collect and transport.

You may think that such exploitation is now just history but sadly it is not.

Synthetic rubber was developed during the oil boom and while it is used in many applications it is oil-based and still can’t compete with natural rubber for aircraft tires.

The situation now is that as Thailand and neighbouring countries convert more and more of their natural jungles to plant rubber trees, whole communities have become dependent on the very long days that it takes to constantly tap rubber from the trees.

And here is the next perfect storm brewing. While the new areas have not been infected by the fungus, the particular species that offer the most latex (the actual substance that rubber is made from) can also vary between individual trees, as a result, most trees are cloned to both get the most latex and take the least time to reach a productive age. If the fungus were to reach the any of the plantations, they are now close together that it would be able to spread through the entire region very quickly, the only intervention at the moment is to destroy the entire plantation and quarantine the area.

The second part of the problem is that new car and aircraft sales have flattened resulting in long term rubber prices dropping to the point that farmers are needing to cut corners to and plant even more trees to get the same return.

The working conditions are not sustainable.

History repeats itself

Just like the Covid-19 pandemic all the warning signs are there to point to a repeat of a collapse in South America a century ago. The final omen is the huge slump in demand for any travel meaning more pressure on the rubber price.

An intervention is needed.

But even as one crisis looms a new hope appears. Many plants produce latex as a way to protect against insects and heal damage. In an attempt to find something with a fair yield and that grows like a weed rather than wait seven years for trees to supply you and destroy a jungle in the process, scientists have focused on something you see often, a dandelion. The Russian Dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz appears to be the ideal candidate.

The Continental Shift

Continental tires have spent the last 5 years looking to find the best strain and extract the latex most effectively. Not only did it need to be practical they needed the produced rubber to perform as well as the current versions and thankfully it does. Now the efforts are focused on optimising for the best growth conditions and harvesting which may see rubber grown in marginal farmland in countries that could benefit from a new industry, South Africa is a suitable location. But the real impact may come from a vertically farmed version that would be grown aeroponically (the latex is in the root and not using soil not only keeps it clean but might allow for the root to be harvested more than once.

If we are to learn from the past though then we need to regulate how the rubber is produced and ensure that the prices are sustainable. If we are successful, we could see natural jungles return while still keeping trucks on the road and planes in the air.

It might even allow us to reduce the amount of synthetic rubber we use.

Image credit: Greg Hume - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

12 August 2020 7:15 PM

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