Is the rubber industry becoming greener?
Markus Nykvist, R&D Manager at Gislaved Gummi AB in Sweden, gives a chemist’s view on the subject.
Why does the rubber industry use hazardous chemicals?
The production of rubber products requires a large number of raw materials and chemical substances to achieve the required properties. Many of the chemicals that we use are relatively harmless from an environmental and health perspective. However, we also use various types of hazardous substances that were introduced during the long history of the rubber industry. The reason is that the rubber chemists have continuously been investigating chemicals that create a specific technical performance of the rubber compound. Unfortunately some of these reactive chemicals may cause damage to the environment and to human health.
Are the risks understood?
During the past 25 – 30 years there has been an increasing interest in society to investigate the hazards with certain chemicals and to assess the risks. We have been impacted by stricter legislation, for example, the EU REACH Regulation that was introduced in 2007. This Regulation places strict responsibility on industry to manage risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances. We can also see that several customers are aware of the risks and want to phase out certain chemicals. I would say that we are aware of the risks
and that we have made progress in many areas.
What actions have been taken?
At Gislaved Gummi AB we have phased out a number of chemicals; HA oils with high PAH content, certain phthalates, lead, ETU, to mention a few. Through smart databases (iChemistry) we have improved the management of chemicals, for example, through systematic risk analyses, screening of chemicals that are listed as candidates for risk reduction by the authorities and the customers, and informative Safety Data Sheets.
What are the main challenges?
You may break down the question into two answers:
- Technical difficulties as certain chemicals are used in many different formulations. For example, to totally replace the nitrosamine generating accelerator TMTD in all our recipes would require a substantial R&D effort.
- To get the customer to accept that the formulation will be changed. There can certainly be serious discussions concerning technical specifications, performance and cost.
What about the future?
We will continue with the work to phase out hazardous chemicals and take other precautionary measures. The use of recycled rubber and carbon black will increase. For example, last year during the manufacture of solid tires, at our plant in Sri Lanka, around 60 tons of recycled carbon black was used. I also think that the use of bio-based instead of fossilbased polymers will increase. There is a lot of research going on in this area and some commercial polymers are already available on the market, for example Keltan ECO EPDM. This product is made from sugar cane instead of crude oil. We can also see that HA oils can be replaced by vegetable oils. I am convinced the rubber industry will become greener in the future.