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Natural rubber industry must change direction to survive climate change challenges

As sustainability becomes a big agenda of a net zero world, natural rubber is seen as the good boy in the rubber complex.

Natural rubber industry must change direction to survive climate change challenges

THE international natural rubber (NR) industry faces many challenges along the entire value chain. The upstream is challenged by low pricing, labour shortage, quality decline, disease outbreak and cost escalation.

The midstream processing business faces challenges related to raw material supply, quality, rising costs and waste management. The downstream product sector has its own set of challenges.

Apart from rising costs, quality issues and raw material supply, the biggest challenge of the rubber product business is the uncertain market and competition from alternatives. Meeting all such challenges requires the right interventions with innovative technologies and strategies. Not all NR producing countries face the same threats though.

Some cope better with the difficulties. Malaysia is not among them. So much so that one recently predicted that our NR industry will be extinct in less than 15 years. Notwithstanding such challenges, the industry is also seeing new opportunities in a world threatened by a looming climate and resource crisis.

As sustainability becomes a big agenda of a net zero world, NR is seen as the good boy in the rubber complex. There is no doubt that the world will continue to need rubber to make the thousands of products the planet needs.

Now, close to 30 million tonnes of rubber are consumed each year. And this is predicted to grow as the world population continues to expand. We should be hitting 10 billion in a few years. NR and synthetic rubber (SR) now share the cake in supplying the world. It is about a 50/50 share.

While NR is renewable, being tree based, SR is not. SR is now derived from fossil-based chemicals. And as the world is increasingly bent on phasing out fossil fuels, as we saw during the recent COP 28 in Dubai, SR will likely go the same path. It is not that straight forward though changing from SR to NR.

There are properties that makes SR is superior to NR. These include among others being resistant to oily environment, high temperatures, abrasion and ultraviolet exposures. This explains why in some applications SR is irreplaceable. But most often, because of cost considerations, blends of NR and SR are deployed.

Now, tyres consume about 70 per cent of the NR produced. The bigger the tyre, the higher the NR ratio. Aviation tyres must use 100 per cent NR because of the material's superior heat absorbing property whilst the higher volume passenger car tyres use more SR due to its better abrasion. The big question is, will there be SR available when fossil fuels are truly phased out?

How will the rubber products which depend on the unique properties of SR cope? Scientists agree the best way to produce SR which conforms with the low carbon agenda is to make it from NR. Chemically modifying NR to meet SR properties is not scientifically impossible.

But it requires research and development (R&D). There have been past attempts which showed promise.

One good example is the Epoxidized NR, which could match some of the SR character. Given the support, there is no reason why the chemists of the world cannot eventually make SR from NR. We must remember that it was also the chemists of the West which first produced SR from petrochemicals.

And this happened when the West was under pressure to obtain enough supply of NR. During the war, NR was indispensable, but supply was disrupted because NR was mostly sourced from the East. In the rubber world, NR clearly stands a better chance of surviving a world pressured by net zero targets.

However, showcasing such a positive carbon image of NR requires technological innovation, good data and effective communication. All the challenges and opportunities call for more intensification in R&D.

The most optimal way to resolve such challenges and capture the opportunities is through collaborative funding and partnership in R&D. Collaboration should not be just confined among NR producing countries.

In fact, NR should partner SR to revolutionise the global rubber market. The truth is the world cannot do without rubber. So, if all the required technical properties of the material can be made from NR, then sustainability is a non-issue. With better NR demand, NR price will also see better days.

Read More: Here

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