The average household uses synthesized rubber products everyday. Rubber is in things like hair-ties, toys, tires, welcome mats, shoes, gloves, rain boots, mattresses, and so much more! While we use rubber products everyday, few people know how it’s made.
Natural rubber is made from latex plants. Most commonly, latex can be found from the “rubber tree” but it can be found in nearly 10% of all plants! Latex is a natural milky fluid found in many plants and aids in sealing open wounds and protecting itself from insects. While latex is in many plants, natural rubber isn’t always contained in that latex. Most natural rubber harvested today comes from the Para՛ rubber tree which is typically grown in Southeast Asia.
To harvest latex, the tree’s bark is cut down the center. A strip of bark is removed and a shallow cut is made. This allows the liquid latex to seep out for collection – this process may remind you of tapping for sap in maple trees!
It’s important for the collecting process to take place on sunny or cloudy days. Rain can dilute the latex and ruin the product. Once the latex is collected in buckets, it’s mixed with a variety of chemicals that keeps the latex at the desired consistency. The clumpy latex is then sent through various rollers to help remove water and thin the sheets.
Sometimes during this stage, colors are mixed into the latex. Once rolled, the sheets are dried and smoked! Finally, the latex is prevulcanized, which makes the product easier to transport.
When harvesting latex, farmers continue to cut in the same section or panel of bark for six years. After six years, they will switch to a different panel, which gives the previous section plenty of time to heal from the shallow cut. Trees will stop being harvested for latex after 24 years. After 24 years, these trees are often cut down and used for wood. In its place, a new rubber tree is planted.