Sustainability truly is a term that casts a wide net. From Goodyear using soybean oil in its tires to the largest producer of natural rubber in the world trying to make its plantation friendly both to people and the environment, sustainability applies to both, though on much different levels.
And as most companies are trying to make strides in their environmental impact, it also can be a problem when the players can't agree on the definition of such terms as biobased or biodegradable.
It's true that significant strides have been made in terms of environmental impact in the rubber and related industries, but it's equally true that much still needs to be done, and that this work will take time. Just look at the decades of research that have been put into finding alternative forms of natural rubber, in such plants as guayule and Russian dandelions. Much progress has been made in recent years, but nobody really has a firm grasp on when these alternatives will made a significant impact in the tire and rubber product making industries.
Still, it's good to spotlight efforts that are showing promise. One such project is Goodyear's work to replace petroleum-based processing oils with soybean oils. The tire maker began this work in 2011 and currently has three tire lines produced with soybean oil. The long-term goal is to phase out the petroleum-derived oils with the soy counterparts by 2040.
Halcyon Agri also deserves a nod for its work to address sustainability and human rights issues at its rubber plantations in Cameroon. The world's largest NR producer—accounting for roughly 12 percent of global supply—owns about 250,000 acres of rubber trees in Cameroon.
Halcyon has received some encouraging reports on the progress of its Sustainable Natural Rubber Supply Chain Policy, which included a Sustainable Commission for Cameroon under the direction of Halcyon subsidiary Corrie MacColl. Mighty Earth, a non-governmental organization that has been critical of other NR sustainability programs, said communities have been encouraged by progress made during the last 18 months.
On the other side of the coin, it's clear that much work remains in other "sustainability" efforts. Ramani Narayan, a distinguished professor at Michigan State University, gave an engaging keynote at the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference on how terms such as biobased and biodegradable must be clearly defined or they will remain useless in all practicality.
Biobased, he explained, addresses a material's origin, while biodegradable deals with end-of-life issues. So just because something can be identified as being biobased, it doesn't have anything to do with whether it's sustainable or not.
And being biodegradable means that micro-organisms can utilize the molecules of the substance as a food source. Then there's the question of degree of biodegradability, which has to do with whether the whole substance will be completely consumed, or whether some will be left behind.
To make matters even more difficult is that plastics and elastomers are long-chain polymers built to be strong. Diverting this waste from landfills into practical uses is a must, Narayan said, adding there is no one solution.
So as some sustainability efforts make progress, others must rethink strategy before moving forward.