Where Does Rubber Come From?

Most of the world’s rubber comes from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka

These countries are all located in South-east Asia.

Brazil provided the world with the rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, but Brazil no longer plays any significant part in the natural rubber trade. Seeds were exported from the lower Amazon area of Brazil to London UK by Henry Wickham, a local planter acting for the British Government in 1876.

The seeds were germinated at the Tropical Herbarium in Kew Gardens, London later that year. From there seedlings were exported to Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka). In 1877, 22 seedlings were sent from Ceylon to Singapore, where they grew strongly, and the technique of tapping was developed.

Prior to this, the trees had to be felled before the latex could be extracted.

By 1900, most of the techniques and agricultural practices required to establish large plantations had been developed. One key technique was bud grafting. This is essentially a cloning technique which ensures that genetically identical trees can be produced in unlimited numbers.

The rubber industry often talks about high-yielding clones, or other types of clone; and this is the basis of that terminology.

Over the next 40 years or so, the British in Malaysia and the Dutch in Indonesia cleared large areas of rainforest to create rubber plantations.

Simultaneously, local farmers saw the opportunities of rubber cultivation, and planted small groves of trees to supplement their own income.

This gives rise to two types of rubber plantations in most producing countries: the plantations and the smallholdings.

Smallholdings tend to produce solid rubber, while plantations are essentially large-scale farms, with professional management. Most latex comes from professionally managed plantations.

Is Latex Made From Sap?

The answer is No

Latex is often described as the sap of the Hevea tree. This is not an accurate description. The sap runs deeper inside the tree, beneath the cambium. Latex runs in the latex ducts which are in a layer immediately outside the cambium. This highlights the skill of the tapper. If the cambium is cut, then the tree is damaged, because the cambium is where all the growth takes place. Too much damage to the cambium and the tree stops growing and stops making latex.

Methods of Latex Rubber Tapping

All natural rubber originates in the Hevea tree, and it starts its journey when the tree is tapped. Trees are rarely tapped more often than once every two days.

A tapper starts the trek around the plantation before dawn. At each tree a sharp knife is used to shave off the thinnest possible layer from the intact section of bark. The cut must be neither too deep, nor too thick. Either will reduce the productive life of the tree. This starts the latex flowing, and the tapper leaves a small cup underneath the cut.

In ordinary circumstances, this latex will normally coagulate into a lump in the bottom of the cup, called ‘cup lump.’ If the plantation manager wants to make latex, then the tapper must add a stabilizing agent to the cup. Usually this is ammonia, which prevents the latex from coagulating.

The tapper returns a few hours later and collects the stuff in the cup — either cup lump or latex. The double round trip usually finishes at about 2 pm.

Processing of Latex – Cup Lump or Liquid Concentrate

If solid rubber is required, the cup lump, together with tree lace (the remnants of the latex flow from the cut down to the cup) and other bits and pieces are collected together and processed. That processing involves quite a lot of heat, which destroys many of the proteins. It ends up as solid rubber. Depending on the method of processing and the final purity of the material, the industry refers to it as sheet rubber. This rubber is often used to make mattress cores.

When latex is required the material is gathered on the tapper’s return journey, poured into containers and delivered to a processing station where it is strained and concentrated. At no stage in the process is the latex heated. This means most of the proteins remain in the latex.

More stabilizer is added and the latex goes into a centrifuge to remove some of the water, and increase the rubber content of the latex. After centrifuging, the material is known as latex concentrate, and contains roughly 60 percent solid rubber and 40 percent other stuff (water, proteins etc.).

This is what is used in the dipping process when making gloves.

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