For those of us that work in and around the rubber industry, it's no surprise that rubber is vital to everyday life. But while many in rubber know about the “well-kept secret” that is our industry, it's always interesting to get the perspective of an outsider.
Author Charles Mann gives us that in the January issue of “National Geographic,” with a good read titled “Why we (still) can't live without rubber.”
Also available on the publication's website, the piece overlays the colorful history of the rubber industry onto what has been happening in today's society. He details the surge of rubber plantation planting in Southeast Asia that is bringing many out of poverty, but also could lead to dire consequences.
Mann writes how natural rubber remains the material of choice in many applications, despite the availability of synthetic rubber. Because of that, global NR production has roughly tripled from 4.4 million metric tons in 1983 to more than 13 millions tons today. Mostly from Hevea brasiliensis trees that yield only a few ounces of latex each day.
There is discussion of the rubber boom and bust in Brazil, and how those in that country still hate Henry Wickman. He smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil and sold them to British authorities, who then set up plantations in Southeast Asia, which today accounts for 92 percent of NR output.
Charles Goodyear is mentioned, and how his discovery of rubber vulcanization truly transformed the world. Henry Ford has a role in the story. He hated being beholden to other rubber suppliers, so he invested the equivalent of $300 million in today's dollars to create “Fordlandia,” a disaster of monumental proportions.
But the piece also looks closely at how NR trees have spread across much of Southeast Asia, replacing tropical forest. Mann warns of the potential disaster that could lie ahead, given the lack of biodiversity the region faces and what would happen if the South American leaf blight were to reach Southeast Asia, something scientists have been warning about for years.
Stay tuned. The rubber industry still has a lot of history to play out.
Meyer is editor of Rubber & Plastics News. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.