Most of the major tire companies are looking closely to adhere to policies of procuring natural rubber (NR) from sustainable sourcesactions that likely will be key to pushing for alternative NR sources to be available on a commercial basis.
Group Michelin made news recently when it announced its Zero Deforestation program, where the NR it useswherever feasible by reasonable meanswill come from plantations that comply with these principles. The plan was lauded by groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund 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 Corp. 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 projects such as guayule rubber and alternative NR produced from 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 guayule agronomics firm PanAridus L.L.C., 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. recently announced a $39 million investment to build a dedicated dandelion research facility, with the tire maker saying it will introduce products made with dandelion rubber 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 more profitable palm oil.
While seeing alternatives as commonplace in the market is still years away, the projects that are under way show that the time for viable NR alternatives is much closer on the horizon than it ever has been.
This editorial appeared in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.