Developments in Sustainable rubber
Civil Society groups more concerned about the high-carbon stock forests in the Mekong basin (Laos, Myanmar, Yunnan Province and neighboring areas in South East Asia) that were being cut down and replaced with rubber plantations than about rolling resistance; hysteresis curves; silica-silane compounds or anything similar. They have a strong and positive agenda
By David Shaw:
I am sometimes asked to discuss sustainability in the tyre and rubber industry. One of the main challenges is in defining what that word “sustainable” means. If you ask me quietly and out of the public eye, I will offer the opinion that the tyre industry is far from sustainable.That opinion is based on a broad view of the complete lifecycle of a tyre. It absorbs huge amounts of energy during manufacture and as rolling resistance during its useful life. The vast majority of this energy is sourced from fossil fuels.Drilling down a little, we can look at the environmental impact of various aspects of the tire’s life.
• Where was the natural rubber sourced?
• Were any of the materials used during manufacture carcinogenic or mutagenic?
• How much energy is wasted in heating and cooling the rubber during manufacture?
• How much energy does the tire absorb with each revolution?
• Where do all the wear particles go, as the tread gradually erodes?
• Is the carcass retreaded?
• What happens at the end of the tire’s life?
Meeting with Civil Society
Around 18 months ago, I attended a fundamental meeting where the tyre industry met with groups such as Global Witness, Birdlife International, WWF, Greenpeace and so on. Collectively, these groups are often called Civil Society. I was asked to do a presentation on tyre sustainability, and I focused on the rolling resistance issue, because that is how the industry – at the time – saw its responsibility in sustainability. Around 80 per cent of the energy impact of a tyre is associated with in-service rolling resistance. According to the engineering-led tyre industry, that is the best place to start when considering the environmental impact of a tyre.Those Civil Society groups were not in the least concerned with rolling resistance; hysteresis curves; silica-silane compounds or anything similar. They were concerned that the high-carbon stock forests in the Mekong basin (that’s Laos, Myanmar, Yunnan Province and neighboring areas in South East Asia), were being cut down and replaced with rubber plantations. Since then, I’ve spoken at length with some of the people who are driving those campaigns and they have a strong and positive agenda.Only one tyre maker – Michelin – has really sought to work with Civil Society. You can be pretty much sure that if any of those Civil Society groups wanted to call out one of the tyre makers for de-forestation, it will not be Michelin.
Customers drive change
Following constructive discussions with WWF, General Motors has been holding meetings with four of the top tyre makers – Bridgestone, Michelin, Goodyear and Continental. WWF is very keen to reduce de-forestation around the world. Rubber and tyres are the only aspects of the vehicle industry that has a significant impact on de-forestation – through those new plantations in the Mekong and elsewhere. This has presented GM with an opportunity to drive substantial change in the natural rubber value chain.Over the next few months, GM is going to work with its tyre suppliers to make commitments to zero deforestation in their corporate rubber sourcing activities. When I spoke with David Tulauskas, GM’s director of sustainability, it was clear that this is not going to be a mere paper commitment, because GM has a real determination to change the world for the better.GM is working with other vehicle makers to adopt the same approach. The expectation is that all vehicle makers will be seeking to eliminate tyres as an actual or potential driver of deforestation. At present there is – deliberately – no clear definition of what “zero deforestation” might mean in the context of the rubber industry. Over the coming months, GM is going to be encouraging its suppliers to demonstrate their commitment to the concept. Through these activities, GM and the tyre makers will develop definitions as well as metrics and data to support their efforts.That will involve creating a traceable and transparent supply chain, from tyre factory all the way back to the farmers who tap the trees. A farmer can use a GPS-enabled App on a smartphone to identify where each tree is located. From there, we can see whether the land is cleared rainforest, or something more sustainable.These Apps will also be able to track yields of each individual tree and could be used for education to support farmers in their efforts to make more money through greater productivity. Improving yields at the farmer level is one of the key approaches to reducing pressure for more land devoted to rubber trees.
I looked at the main tyre makers’ sustainability reports. There is not much in them about sustainable sourcing of natural rubber. Uniquely, Michelin has a clear commitment to zero deforestation and a transparent supply chain. Conti barely even mentions NR in its report.However, when I asked the companies how they are responding to GM’s initiative, Bridgestone, Goodyear and Pirelli all said they are actively looking at how they can bring a zero deforestation commitment into their sourcing policies. Conti was unable to contact anyone due to holidays.
Seven years to fix this
Big-scale numbers generated by IRSG and other forecasters show that the NR world is in over-supply for the next decade or so. That means prices will remain generally low, and there will be limited pressure to add new areas under rubber – and that means limited pressure on de-forestation.After that time, however, many of us expect prices to increase significantly, and that will surely put pressure on existing rainforests.It looks like the tyre industry has about seven years to sort itself out. That’s the time it takes for a rubber tree to mature from a seedling into a tree with tappable circumference.In that time, the industry needs to bring zero-deforestation policies into force among all consumers of rubber – and especially tyre makers, who consume up to 80 per cent of all the NR produced in the world.Otherwise, we’ll be seeing substantial de-forestation in areas where rubber can grow – not just SE Asia, but Africa, and maybe even parts of Latin America as well.