"It no longer attracts our attention, it commands it."
Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's warning during the AIDS crisis 30 years ago is befitting today in reference to the pandemic, its impact on global health and effects on the latex industry.
"This is now the epidemic of our generation," Ranjit Matthan, director of the Vystar Corp., said July 20 during day one of the International Latex Conference. "After an almost cataclysmic first half of 2020, a period from which we are still in a recovery mode, the durability and resilience of natural rubber has proven itself through innovation."
Four industry experts kicked off the ILC, organized by Rubber & Plastics News, during a virtual panel discussion on the trends, innovations and challenges in the latex industry.
Appearing were Matthan; John Heath, director, latex, Corrie MacColl; William Doyle, product development consultant with Vystar Corp.; and Joseph John, director, Polymer Consultancy Services Ltd.
Like many other industries, forces both anticipated and unpredicted conspired in the natural rubber space to cause pricing volatility and supply chain bottlenecks.
As the world's largest countries implement more stringent environmental thresholds, raw material providers are prioritizing sustainability in kind.
And this is where natural rubber producers, with their inherently biodegradable tree rubber, maintain an advantage over petroleum-based synthetic rubber suppliers.
"As for the carbon and climate impact, it is quite strange for me after being in the industry for more than 40 years to be asked to prove that our natural rubber is, in fact, natural," Heath said. " 'Bio-based' is a term that is increasingly used with man-made polymers. The tree itself—the carbon content—eventually returns to the atmosphere from whence it came."
The circularity is there for NR producers, but the challenges are many.
Latex sits well below synthetic rubber in global use, still fighting its way back from a low water mark in 1976 of just more than 30 percent of NR use compared to nearly 70 percent synthetic rubber use.
Panelists predicted NR use could counterbalance synthetic rubber use at 50-50 in the next several years.
In addition, companies like Corrie MacColl and Vystar are navigating deforestation, biodiversity, carbon impact, human and labor rights issues, the effects of low-pricing on smallholder livelihoods; biodegradability; global warming; and a pandemic.
"These are some, but by no means all, of the issues facing the natural rubber industry," Heath said. "These challenges do exist and we need to attend to them because they have significant impacts."
NR producers are responding with deforestation education and merit-based "Outgrower" programs for smallholders; an attention to FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) thresholds and certification; and the Vytex brand of NR, a production partnership between Vystar and Corrie MacColl. Vytex is an ultra-low protein natural rubber latex that panelists say could have application in the tire space.
In February 2020, the bottom fell out of the production end of the latex industry because of the health problems and subsequent shutdowns caused by COVID-19.
There was a mega-glove rush that followed as demand for PPE spiked, producing acute short-term shortages of medical gloves, which account for about 60 percent of the latex industry. Condoms, balloons and carpet adhesives represent other NR end markets.
While China and Malaysia recovered fairly quickly, Matthan said, Thailand production took a lot longer to return.
"Malaysia and China continue to import excess needs, and Thailand and Indonesia are ramping up domestic use," Matthan said "And nitrile remains in tight supply."
The latex segment is huge, second only to automotive tires in rubber use. Its production has returned to 2016 levels, up 95 percent from February 2020, but it remains an imported item for U.S. customers.
While China, Malaysia and Thailand produce 70 percent of the world's natural rubber, the U.S. produces about 3 percent—and represents 32 percent of Malaysia's exports.
There remains "growth potential" in India and China, and Vystar may look to expand its Vytex production line in Vietnam, Thailand, Cameroon and Guatemala, Matthan said.
Innovating and educating
With its ultra-low protein levels, Vytex NR allows for low additional costs; a purer, higher hydrocarbon level; and a lower non-rubber solids base, according to Matthan.
Supplied by Corrie MacColl, the Vytex platform can offer liquid latex concentrate and dry rubber specialty grades that are de-proteinized and NR-based—an NR equivalent to EPDM that is non-allergenic.
Besides the tire industry, panelists said the DPNR platform can be used in anti-vibration mounting, food packaging and medical grade applications.
"Can we alter properties through modifications ... this is what we are looking at now," Matthan said. "Nature itself gives us modifications—it has taught us that we can make modifications using NR."
Some of these modified bioelastic materials—even using hydrogenation to modify a latex EPDM—will be out in the next year from Vystar, he said.