Rubber trees only grow in the tropics, in a range of about 15 to 20 degrees of latitude north and south of the equator. About 85 percent of the global supply of natural rubber comes from southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, the world’s largest exporter, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Myanmar.
About 70 percent of the global latex harvest is used to manufacture tires for the auto industry. At its Weinheim mixing plant, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies processes this natural material for its sister company Vibracoustic, which uses it to make vibration control products for cars, including engine mounts, mass dampers and other parts.
High Mechanical Stability
The rubber plant makes the molecular structure of the material extremely long in a systematic way. This not only gives the material excellent elasticity – for dynamic applications, it imparts high mechanical stability as well. It’s also well-suited for a number of Freudenberg Sealing Technologies products, such as diaphragms, that need high structural strength when they are under considerable dynamic stresses. But natural rubber has a shortcoming: It quickly swells up like a sponge when in contact with nonpolar media such as oil and grease. As a result, it is not a good material for seals. If they were made of natural rubber, they would quickly lose their shape and their sealing performance would decline.
New Focus on Sustainability
The demand for latex products has been rising steadily. This natural material is taking center stage in consuming countries as sustainability becomes more important in supply chain management. In Thailand, rubber importer Weber & Schaer, a supplier to Freudenberg, is working on sustainability issues with companies like Phattalung Paratex. Sudthida Thantanon, Managing Director at the Thai firm, is embracing the trend. She stopped using pesticides on her rubber plantation two years ago. The family-owned company is also working on a new certification, the rubber seal of approval from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
A Departure from Monoculture
Ms. Thantanon has an entirely different goal as well: bidding farewell to monoculture. A few months ago, on land cleared by cutting down older trees, seedlings were planted further apart than usual so the plantation would have more room for other kinds of plants. The first rubber plants, each about 50 centimeters (about 20 inches) high, are now invisible in tall grass. An analysis of the soil will indicate what other crops are suited for mixed cultivation. Phattalung Paratex is teaming up with Weber & Shaer on a biological research project that is giving farmers insights into the right crop selection – along with another source of income and an improved environment.
Plastics are our current focus. On single-use plastic as a burden on society – and how we can deal with the problem. And on the question of whether plastic can be a solution.
You can find more on the topic “Plastic – Breakthrough and Burden” in the actual edition of our magazine ESSENTIAL.