Save a Rubber Tree, Use a Dandelion: Alternatives for Making Tires
In leu of Arbor Day we’re looking at the rubber tree and how it plays a role in the production of the tires that move our trucks. With so much demand for tire production, come environmental stresses and the push for alternative sources of rubber. We’ll be diving into some specifics on the use of the rubber tree in tire production, its effects on the environment and why truckers should care, and the alternative you may not have seen coming: the dandelion.
How Tires are Made
For manufacturing tires, natural rubber is the main material used, and 99% of it is extracted from a tree called Hevea brasiliensis. Rubber starts off as a milky liquid found in the bark of the rubber tree. The trees are tapped to release the liquid which then goes through a mixing, squeezing and drying process to produce sheets of rubber. Synthetic rubber, made from crude oil, is also added to the rubber mixture.The sheets are then wrapped around a center rotating drum along with other necessary chemicals and materials in order to compose all aspects of the tire.
Why do we need rubber alternatives?
Since the rubber tree needs a subtropical climate in order to grow, rainforests are turned into agricultural land to grow the trees resulting in deforestation. Demand for natural rubber is rising, adding to the necessity of more land and more trees. Rubber trees are being grown in agricultural fields in close proximity to one another and are becoming susceptible to a fungal leaf blight which can threaten fields. Rubber trees take years of maturing to develop the sap necessary for rubber making, this makes cultivating it a long and slow process which along with the threats of a fungal disease, are resulting in the addition of synthetic rubber made from environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels. These stresses with producing natural rubber for tires is prompting tire makers to look for other sources of this natural material.
Why should truckers care?
Besides having a desire to make the world more environmentally friendly, why should truckers care what they’re tires are made of? It seems the impact of the manufacturing process of tires reaches further than just deforestation and the use of fossil fuels. The collection of natural rubber is a long and slow process, and with growing demand for tires, synthetic rubber was invented, made up of plastic polymers. As tires rank up mileage, they begin to wear and tear, the result is tiny plastic polymers known as microplastics, being throw off and released into the air. A study in 2017 conducted by Pieter Jan Kole for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated that roughly 10% of microplastics found in oceans can be attributed to tire wear and tear which makes it as important as waste from plastic bottles and bags. These microplastics travel to oceans, and waterways and can eventually make their way into the food chain. To make a long story short, tires are usually made with a mix of natural and synthetic rubber, the latter of which can be deadly to our air quality, oceans, and even the food we eat. R.J.B. Peters and his team in their report, Microplastics in the Aquatic Food Chain found that hundreds of species of animals when looking at the aquatic food chain, have been documented to contain or ingest microplastics. They concluded that more research needs to be conducted to determine the actual effects of these microplastics on our bodies. This means these microplastic's are finding their way inside our bodies, we just don’t know the effects they are having yet.
Dandelions for making tires
With growing concerns regarding tire manufacturing and the effects of rubber tree cultivation, the need to find alternatives is more prevalent than ever with developers looking at an unusual candidate: the Russian dandelion. The cultivation of Russian dandelion rubber goes back to 1931 when Soviet scientists began looking for rubber alternatives due to the scarce availability of Hevea tree rubber during World War II. The plant proved to be extremely resilient, abundant, and easy to grow. The process was eventually all but abandoned and Hevea tree rubber came back to being the cheapest and widely used rubber in the world. Years later, hopes of paving the road for tires made from dandelion rubber was revisited again. Professor Dirk Prüfer and his colleague Dr. Christian Schulze of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME worked with Continental Tire to test out tires they manufactured from Russian dandelion rubber concluding that the tire was equivalent to Hevea rubber tree tires.
Although using Russian dandelions for tire manufacturing wont solve the worlds deforestation or plastic problems, any win for the environment shouldn’t be overlooked.