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RUBBER / LATEX : What is it, where does it come from and how is it made?


What is latex and Where does it come from?

Latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

Latex is a mixture of organic compounds produced by some plants in special cells called caticifers. The composition of latex differs from plant to plant. Most natural rubber comes from a single species of tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Though native to South America, H. brasiliensis is planted in large plantations in southeast Asia, including Malaysia.

Picture of a rubber tree

Picture of a rubber tree (taken from: www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/imaxxeup.htm)

Rubber trees take around 5 years to grow from a seedling to maturity, or a point that it can start to produce rubber. It has an economic life of about 25 to 30 years. Trees are tapped by removing thin strips of bark, which disrupts the laticifers (definition : A plant duct containing latex). The latex then flows down grooves cut in the tree and drips into collection cups.

Rubber estate workers (also known as tappers) then proceed to collect the latex from the collection cups by pouring the contents of the collection cups into a larger container before replacing the collection cup into its original position.

After natural latex is processed, it becomes a rubber with excellent mechanical properties. It has excellent tensile, elongation, tear resistance and resilience. It has good abrasion resistance and excellent low temperature flexibility. However, without special additives, it has poor resistance to ozone, oxygen, sunlight and heat. It has poor resistance to solvents and petroleum products. Useful temperature range is -67 F to +180 F (-55 C to +82 C). It is the high resistance to tear and its superb resiliance over synthetic rubber that makes it still being used by medical doctors and surgeons all over the world.

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The Long Road to Malaysia

In 1876, H.A. Wickham brought seeds of the Hevea tree from Brazil to Kew Gardens near London. After successfully cultivating these, seeds of these trees were then distributed to India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia (then known as Malaya).

Rubber was brought to Malaysia specifically to Kuala Kangsar, Perak in 1877 by Sir Hugh Low, a British resident.

He brought from the Kew Gardens nine rubber trees, marking the arrival of an industry that would within decades put Malaysia prominently on the worlds map as the largest producer of natural latex. (Is there unnatural latex?) More information about how much latex Malaysia exports to the worls can be found here : http://www.lgm.gov.my/nrstat/nrstatframe.html

 

Un-Natural Latex

Un-natural latex or un-natural rubber is called synthetic rubber. Developed in the United States during World War II when supplies of natural latex was cut off, the earliest synthetic rubbers were the styrene-butadiene copolymers, Buna S and SBR, whose properties are closest to those of natural rubber. SBR is the most commonly used elastomer because of its low cost and good properties; it is used mainly for tires.

The use of synthetic rubbers has since overtaken natural rubber by leaps and bounds. But its usage is mainly in the non-medical industries, like the tyre industry, which consumes 70% of the world's synthetic rubber production. Natural rubber is mainly used in the medical industry because of its superior properties.

 

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Some Interesting Facts and Figures

  • Natural Rubber comes from the Rainforest.
  • Rubber gives us surgical gloves, balloons, band-aids, sporting goods, tennis shoes, and chewing gum.

  • Natural rubber resists heat. If you have ever flown in a aeroplane , you landed safely on tyres made of natural rubber.
  • Rubber trees are among the taller trees in the rain forest.
  • Just under the bark of the rubber trees is a soft tissue that is rich with a creamy liquid called latex. Slanting cuts in the bark of a rubber tree guide the sap into a small cup which is then gathered by Rubber Tappers.

  • Most Amazonian rubber is still produced in the same way it was 100 years ago. The latex collected in the forest is slowly dripped on a pole, which is turned by hand in the smoke of a palm nut fire. The latex hardens to a tough, rubbery mass.
  • There can be as many as six hundred wild rubber trees in one thousand acres of rainforest. Because these trees are widely scattered in the forest, they are more resistant to disease. When they are planted close together in rows on rubber plantations, they are susceptible to a fungus called the South America leaf blight.

  • Rubber trees must be about 5 years old before they produce latex.
  • Wild rubber trees grow throughout the forest and thrive only in these conditions in South America.

  • In Asia plantations are possible without the danger of the leaf blight which occurs in South America.
  • Many indigenous peoples earn their living in the Amazon through this rubber tapping and through gathering other things like nuts, herbs and medicines, spices, fruits, fish etc,. They do this without harming the delicate balance of the rainforest.
  • Rubber tappers are called 'Seringueiros' - Say-rin-gay-eros. Today, the Seringueiros maintain a higher standard of living than do the slash and burn farmers. They have also lost only 4% of their forests.

  • Chico Mendes was the leader of the Tappers union and he survived 5 attempts on his life. Chico Mendes defended the rubber tappers way of life. He was killed at age 44 by gunmen hired by ranchers. Mendes organized a cooperative and literacy campaign to help the tappers market and compete directly. He formed the National Council of Rubber Tappers. The rubber barons and bosses enslaved many indigenous peoples. When many tribes retreated into the forest, they brought peasants into their camps and locked them into a debt for goods scheme, similar to miners of that day. Tappers who questioned authority were tortured or killed. in 1985, the rubber tappers met and demanded better health care, education, credit, price guarantees, research on sustainable forest products and a suspension of tax breaks for ranchers and loggers.
  • 'Extractive Reserve' is the name given to land saved for sustainable forest gatherers. Extractive Reserves allow residents families to collect rain forest products, such as natural rubber and Brazil nuts. Sustainable rainforest practices offer the solution to rainforest destruction.
  • In Brazil, more than 700,000 acres of land have been preserved through creating these reserves.
  • World rubber consumption in 2004 was about 20 million tons. The figure is estimated to keep rising. The vehicle sector, tyres and components together, use about 70-75 % of the volumes mentioned above. Tyre industry is estimated to grow at a slightly slower pace than other rubber industries. Most of rubber products globally are consumed in North America, Western Europe and Japan. The growth rate, however, is fster in China ond other countries in the Asia-Pacific area
  • Synthetic rubber comprises about 60 % of the total volumes. Approximately 44 % of synthetic rubber and 77 % of natural rubber are consumed by the tyre industry. Of synthetic rubber types SBR (styrene butadiene rubber) is the most used one. EPDM (ethylene propylene diene) has, however, a faster growth rate. The fastest growing demand is experienced by thermoplastic elastomers. These are materials with properties between traditional rubbers and thermoplastic plastics.

 

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