Can we count rubber as a biodegradable material?

Rubber. From balloons and sports balls, latex gloves and rubber bands, to rainwear and the ultimately the biggest user of rubber out there – automobile tyres, it plays an important function in our daily lives by making them easier in more ways than one. 

But as environmental consciousness gains momentum around all corners of the globe, we may start asking ourselves whether our use of rubber is, in fact, sustainable. 

In order to determine the answer to this question, we must first distinguish between the two main types of rubber: natural rubber and synthetic rubber.  

Whereas synthetic rubber is generally composed of petrochemicals, natural rubber comes from rubber trees like Hevea brasiliensis found in South America, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and Sri Lanka.

Let’s take a closer look at natural rubber and whether or not it’s really biodegradable.

Is natural rubber really biodegradable?

With the rise in landfills and pollution across the globe, concerns are rising about the nature of products we purchase and whether they are biodegradable. In brief, this means whether a product which is exposed to the natural elements can degrade to such a state that it is no longer a pollutant and causes harm to the environment.

So, is natural rubber biodegradable?

While at first glance the answer to this question is yes, we should first take a look at the different types of natural rubber. – latex and vulcanised rubber. This distinction will help us make better environmentally-friendly, recycling decisions in the future. 

  • latex rubber is the most natural type of rubber. Natural rubber is the latex of a rubber tree that has a mixture of polymers. Examples of uncured rubber include its usefulness in cement products, insulating applications, friction tape and others. 
  • vulcanized rubber is the material that forms after the vulcanization of natural rubber. Examples of this rubber type include shoe soles, rubber hoses, car tyres, toys, erasers etc. 

Therefore, whereas one is more naturally occurring, the other has undergone a treatment process that has changed it structurally. 

What about degradation times?

Thanks to sunlight, oxygen, water (in some cases), bacteria and other microorganisms, natural rubber like latex rubber is easily biodegradable. It will take several weeks (about 8 according to some sources) for natural rubber like condoms or latex rubber gloves to completely decompose.

However, when it comes to synthetic rubber, in some cases it will require the change in polymer structures and chemical processes and treatments for them to fully disintegrate, if at all, since many of these materials are composed of more than just rubber and this will mean a more thorough investment in the degradation process. 

For example, a major recycling concern is the problem of used car tyres around the world, with millions of them ending up in landfills, if they’re not incinerated first.

Going the environmentally-friendly route with natural rubber

If you’re committed to helping the environment, then you’ll certainly want to do some research into the types of products you purchase and where they ultimately end up – whether they’re biodegradable or whether they will simply fill up space in landfills, causing further pollution. 

Luckily, research indicates that natural, latex rubber is biodegradable. Therefore, when making your next purchase, check to see whether the product you’ve chosen falls into this category. 

By making informed decisions, you’ll not only help contribute to a cleaner environment, but will also help to preserve the beauty of our planet for future generations.

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