Most of the major tire companies are looking closely to adhere to policies of procuring natural rubber from sustainable sources, actions that likely will be key to pushing for alternative NR sources to be available on a commercial basis.
Michelin made the news recently when it announced its Zero Deforestation program, where the NR it uses—wherever feasible by “reasonable means”—will come from plantations that comply with these principles. The plan was lauded by such groups as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fun as a signal to the rubber growing regions of the world that selling rubber that doesn't meet these standards will become much more difficult in the future.
Goodyear has been involved the past several years with the International Rubber Study Group's Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative; Bridgestone has an active sustainability program; and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. touts a mission statement describing its views on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.
For decades there has been research into such projects as guayule rubber and rubber dandelions. But never more than now has there been as much concurrent activity that looks to have the potential to bring alternatives to market.
Bridgestone has its Biorubber Process Research Center in Arizona, not far from its Agro Operation Guayule Research Farm. It expects to make guayule commercially available by the early 2020s. Cooper is in a partnership with PanAridus, Clemson University, Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and has made tires that included guayule rubber supplied by PanAridus.
And Continental A.G. just announced a $39 million investment to build a dedicated dandelion research facility, with the tire maker saying it will introduce commercial dandelion rubber products within a decade.
Nearly 90 percent of the world's supply of Hevea NR still comes from millions of individual growers, a system that has impacted the rainforest. The current system may be susceptible to climate change and can be impacted by farmers switching crops from rubber to the more profitable palm oil.
While seeing alternatives as commonplace in the market is still years away, the projects that are underway show that the time for viable NR alternatives is much closer on the horizon than it ever has been.