Is rubber bad for the environment? It depends!

  • Date: May 14, 2022

The properties of rubber make it ideal for many products – and we use a lot of it! In motoring alone, here in the U.S., we go through an estimated 300 million tires every single year – that’s a lot of rubber. As a society, the items that we use day-to-day has never been scrutinized more from an environmental perspective. This raises the question: is rubber bad for the environment? Let’s take a look…

What is rubber made of?

To consider whether rubber is eco-friendly or not, we firstly need to consider how it is made. This is made a bit more complicated in this instance since there are two main types – rubber can be natural or synthetic.  

Natural rubber comes from the latex sap from a number of different trees. Most commonly it comes from the Hevea brasiliensis tree  – often referred to as the rubber tree.  The rubber is produced form the latex sap that is ‘tapped’ from the mature tree. Synthetic rubber, on the other hand, is a manmade material. Without getting too technical, it is made from the byproducts of petroleum – it doesn’t come out a tree, it comes out a factory!

So, is rubber bad for the environment?

Rubber can be recycled

Both natural and synthetic rubber items that have come to the end of their usable life can be recycled. Recycled rubber can be used for various new things, from sports pitches to fuel! As with all recycling, rules vary from country-to-country and even region-to-region within countries. Some will collect curbside whilst others may not. Check with your local recycling service if in any doubt.

Rubber is biodegradable

Natural rubbers are biodegradable, they can be broken down by microorganisms. However, this does not happen quickly – we are talking decades here rather than years. Synthetic rubber won’t break down in this way – it will break up into smaller pieces but will not biodegrade. Its durability is great when being used in different products, but not so much when they end up in landfill…

Natural rubber is (generally) sustainable

Since natural rubber comes from trees it is a renewable resource it could be regarded as sustainable. As long as the rubber trees are growing and producing sap, natural rubber can be produced. Whether it will be able to keep up with demand is another matter!  It should also be noted that sustainability largely depends on the actions of the farmers. Some will adopt more sustainable practices than others.  

However, it is not all good news…

Synthetic rubber comes from fossil fuels (and causes pollution)

Synthetic rubber is derived from petroleum. As well as being non-renewable, the fossil fuel industry also brings significant environmental impacts including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. The production of synthetic rubber contributes to this by supporting the industry. The production of manmade rubber also leads to air pollution – when heated for molding, it releases toxins into the air. Water pollution is also associate with synthetic rubber production. It varies from country to country, but SBR and butadiene are common contaminants of water during synthetic rubber production.    

Natural rubber contributes to deforestation

The demand for natural rubber remains strong. Since rubber trees need significant space to grow, vast amounts of land need to be cleared to make way for them. In the Mekong region of Asia is estimated to have cleared three million hectares of forest since 2000 due to the cultivation of natural rubber. This deforestation leads to a monumental loss in biodiversity.   

Chemical pesticides use in natural rubber plantations

The trees that produce sap that ultimately produces rubber can be damaged by various pests. To prevent this most plantations  opt for chemical pesticides. But it is not just the targeted pest that is affected by chemical pesticides – the environment (as well as human health) is affected too. Water pollution and a decline in soil quality are just two devastating issues associated with their use.   

The bottom line

Rubber isn’t perfect. But it does have fairly decent ‘green’ credentials. It can be recycled and, if not, it will eventually biodegrade. Unfortunately, natural rubber has been linked with deforestation, and pesticide use during cultivation can affect the local environment significantly. Synthetic rubber also has negative environmental impacts associated with its production. From it’s use of fossil fuels to the pollution caused by its production, environmental impact is far-reaching. Where possible, we recommend yo opt for natural rubber product rather than the synthetic variety.