Securing the Rubber Supply

Securing the Rubber Supply

With no established commercial cultivation of natural rubber in the US, demand for natural rubber is met by imports from countries such as Indonesia and Thailand. Due to the necessity of natural rubber in various products (e.g., tires), rubber product manufacturers and other industry participants are researching ways to produce natural rubber outside of tropical climates, including in the US, to try to avoid price volatility as well as the relatively high price of natural rubber in the current natural rubber supply.

Trouble in the Tropics

The current source of natural rubber is the Hevea brasiliensis tree, which is native to Southeast Asia. However, several other sources of the material are being tested as possible supplements or eventual replacements to the current natural rubber supply. The tropical location where natural rubber is sourced is vulnerable to extreme weather, climate change, and plant diseases such as leaf blight. These factors combined with increasing population and manufacturing activity will exacerbate the strain on the natural rubber supply, necessitating alternative sources.

Finding a New Way

One such alternative source of natural rubber is guayule – a desert shrub native to the southwestern US and northern Mexico. Guayule is adapted to the arid environment in which it grows, and requires less water than the Hevea brasiliensis tree. The USDA is continuing to study the plant as a source of natural rubber. In fact, Yulex – a specialty natural rubber producer – has obtained the rights to the latex extraction process.

Another possibility to enhance the natural rubber supply through domestic production is commercial cultivation of a plant known as Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS), also known as the Russian dandelion. TKS has proven success in tire production, with leading companies like Continental producing tires from their own version of the material – Taraxagum. Though the roots of the plant can be used in their natural state as a source of latex, the precursor to rubber, efforts are underway to develop strains with higher yields.

Growers in the US stand to benefit from establishing commercial cultivation of natural rubber alternatives such as guayule and TKS. As the climate continues to shift and impact growing in tropical environments and as the global population expands, securing a substantial domestic supply of natural rubber will become increasingly critical.

Want to Learn More About Rubber?

Don’t worry, we have you covered! For additional information and analysis of US industry trends, see Rubber: United States, a report published by the Freedonia Focus Reports division of The Freedonia Group. This report forecasts to 2023 US rubber demand in nominal and real (inflation-adjusted) terms and synthetic rubber shipments in nominal terms at the manufacturer level. Total demand in nominal terms is segmented by product in terms of:

  • styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR)
  • natural rubber
  • polybutadiene rubber (BR)
  • ethylene-propylene diene monomer (EPDM)
  • polychloroprene (CR); isobutylene isoprene, or butyl, rubber (IIR); polyisoprene rubber (IR); and acrylonitrile-butadiene rubber (NBR)
  • other synthetic rubbers such as acrylic and fluoroelastomers

To illustrate historical trends, total demand, total shipments, the various segments, and trade are provided in annual series from 2008 to 2018.

The scope of this report is defined as thermoset elastomers and excludes thermoplastic elastomers (e.g., thermoplastic polyurethanes) as well as silicone elastomers. Reclaimed rubber is also excluded. Rubber demand represents the raw elastomers, before the compounding stage. Re-exports of rubber are excluded from demand and trade figures.

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About the Author

Chris Dyer is a Market Research Analyst for Freedonia Focus Reports. He holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies, and his experience as an analyst covers multiple industries.