General Motors Co. said May 15 that it is making sustainable, environmentally friendly natural rubber production a priority, and will work with major tire manufacturers to create a plan to achieve that goal.
This is exciting news on many levels, reverberating not only through the entire NR supply chain but the entire history of rubber. Ever since Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 Hevea brasiliensis seeds from the Amazon to the Kew Botanical Gardens in 1876, people have sought better, faster, cheaper and surer ways of obtaining high-quality rubber. Thomas Edison's search for alternative rubber sources comes to mind, as do the guayuleros of the U.S. Emergency Rubber Project during World War II. Environmental concerns, of course, came later. But they added impetus to the search, and now have moved the NR market to the verge of revolutionary change.
GM is far from the only auto maker to make sustainability, in NR and other materials, an overriding goal. Ford Motor Co., for instance, is well advanced in its development of auto parts using rubber from the desert shrub guayule as a partial or total replacement for Hevea. But GM is the first to announce a companywide sustainable NR program. And it is enlisting the help of its suppliers—Goodyear, Michelin, Bridgestone Americas Inc., Continental Tire the Americas—to achieve that goal.
GM has solid partners in the tire makers, which have made sustainability a goal for years. Michelin's Zero Deforestation program; Bridgestone's corporate "Our Way to Serve" program and ongoing guayule commercialization efforts in Arizona; and Continental's research in Taraxacum kok-saghyz all demonstrate the tire industry's commitment to making NR as environmentally friendly as possible.
Hevea will remain in the equation, but the way it is managed seems likely to change. In Southeast Asia, most NR is produced by small farmers who depend on their rubber trees for their livelihood. When NR prices fall—as they have done in recent years—many of those farmers switch to better-paying crops. Finding not only better ways to manage the production of smallholders, but also ways to make sure they are paid reasonably for their efforts, will be crucial to ensuring continued Hevea supply.
The work of both auto makers and tire producers points the way to a more complex, yet also more manageable, natural rubber industry. If all goes to plan, the tire and auto industries will have multiple sources of excellent rubber, as well as a lower environmental impact than anyone could have imagined even 10 years ago. This will be a triumph for both industries, and it seems eminently achievable.