Rubber is one of the world’s most versatile raw materials, used to make everything from tyres, gloves and condoms to balls, boots and bands. (Not so much rubber ducks, though: they’re typically made of plastic.)
The global demand for rubber remains high, too. Cultivation of the crop has risen in the past decade – especially in Southeast Asia – and is expected to continue. In fact, depending on how efficiently they are grown, rubber plantations could cover 8.5 million more hectares of land by 2024, one scientific study claims.
And there’s the rub. Right now, rubber is one of the least sustainable materials out there. According to the Platform on Sustainable Rubber, the near-doubling of land covered by rubber plantations between 1983 and 2012 – driven largely by rising demand for natural latex in China – has led to the significant loss of natural forest habitat, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. The non-profit organisation also includes poor labour conditions and growing poverty among the consequences of increased rubber production.
Enter the Natural Rubber Sustainability Program – a project in Indonesia that seeks to encourage more sustainable rubber tapping practices. It was launched by Pirelli and Kirana Megatara in 2014 to educate farmers about the best growing and rubber-tapping techniques. Its aim is to help produce a higher quality and contamination-free rubber, and to reduce deforestation.
To do so, the programme teaches farmers how to maximise rubber extraction while extending the life of the rubber trees – which in turn decreases the need for additional deforestation as existing plantations lose their productivity.
Producing better quality rubber is a win-win scenario. Not only does it provide Pirelli – one of the world’s largest tyre manufacturers – with a better quality product, it also brings in higher revenues for farmers. Having learnt more effective rubber-tapping methods, they are able to increase productivity and income, which in turn spurs more economic growth.
Meanwhile, improving plantation productivity and tree management helps end the unsustainable practices that degrade plantations, reducing the risk of deforestation resulting from the abandonment of unproductive plantations.
The Natural Rubber Sustainability Program also seeks to support local education. Last year, in fact, it awarded no fewer than 65 scholarships to the children of rubber farmers.
Raising awareness about how sustainable rubber tapping could improve people’s livelihoods and the health of the planet is a laudable aim. But with demand for rubber rising, the program has its work cut out. In fact, according to the International Rubber Study Group, global consumption is expected to reach 19.4 million tonnes by 2020. To reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of producing this $30 billion cash crop, it’s time to start bouncing some more ideas around.
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