The tire industry's future is alive and well, growing in fields, deserts, and research and development facilities around the globe.
As for Bridgestone Americas Inc. and Nokian Tyres P.L.C., a more sustainable future is rooted in guayule, a desert shrub that thrives in drier, more arid temperatures. The plant, which yields a natural rubber latex with properties nearly identical to hevea NR, is being heralded by many as a promising alternative rubber resource.
"(Guayule) is a very good alternative to natural rubber from natural rubber trees," Olli Seppala, global head of research and development for Nokian, told Rubber News. "Many companies are starting to turn to alternative (natural rubber). … Our way is to be studying guayule and the latex extracted from that kind of plant that is in the very dry and hot conditions."
That latex is a resource that the tire industry will need in the years ahead, according to Andrew Thompson, director of sustainability policy for Bridgestone Americas.
"Natural rubber is our industry's most vital raw material, with performance properties that currently can't be replicated in a lab," Thompson said. "Today, more than 90 percent of the world's natural rubber supply is single-sourced from hevea natural rubber trees primarily grown in Southeast Asia. This presents some challenges from both a business and sustainability perspective."
Climate's impact on the hevea NR is far-reaching. Rising temperatures and warming waters are leading to weather events and patterns—typhoons, floodings and droughts—that have potential to severely impact the NR harvest.
Hevea crops also are susceptible to fungus and disease, factors that further constrain the harvest and force prices to fluctuate, Thompson said.
Moreover, the trees only can be grown in certain climates, and the vast majority of the hevea NR produced is sourced from Southeast Asia. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted global supply chains, sourcing natural rubber from a single location became a major challenge for companies across the globe.