Natural v. Commercial Rubber: What's the Difference?

Rubber has been around for quite some time. In fact, rubber made its "usefulness" debut in 1770, when Joseph Priestley discovered it made an excellent eraser.

Rubber usage amped up during the Industrial Revolution, then experienced the explosion approaching its current use during World War II. Eventually it became a commonplace item on farms, in cities and throughout suburbia alike.

But the durable, multi-purpose matieral came under fire when it was discovered that it was difficult to dispose of in an eco-friendly way and that everything from its production to its physical qualities were pointed to as either potentially health-threatening, bad for the environment or both.

How bad is commercial rubber? Should you buy products made from natural rubber instead? What's the difference between the two? Let's explore.

How Rubber is Made

Natural Rubber

Natural rubber (sometimes called "India rubber") is a runny, milky-appearing substance that oozes from one of a number of different plants when cut. The most common source, however, is the Para tree. Its primary polymer is Latex.

Currently, about 44% of the world's produced rubber is of the natural variety. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia are the primary sources for natural rubber.

To produce the rubber, rubber trees are punctured and a pail is hung from a wire around each tree to catch the dripping Latex. The Latex is either collected before it coagulates, or coagulated Latex is processed into a dried concentrate.

Commercial Rubber

Technically, naturally processed rubber as described above is commercial rubber, as it is made for sale and use globally. However, for the purposes of a distinction between truly synthetic rubber and rubber that starts out a natural product and is then processed, we will refer to synthetic rubber here as commercial rubber.

Unlike natural rubber, commercial rubber doesn't start inside a tree - it starts inside a petrochemical plant. Generally, commercial rubber uses Neoprene (polychloroprene). Neoprene is created by reacting acetylene and hydrochloric acid together.

Whether it's natural or commercial/synthetic, rubber needs to be manipulated in order to be useful for products we use. It will generally be rolled and pulled (a process known as "mastication"), pushed down on repeatedly ("calendering") or squeezed through holes ("extrusion") and finally, heated (vulcanized).  

An Honest Comparison

When it comes to a "which is better?" match, we'll bet you already know we're going to side with natural rubber (at least overall).

But did you know why?

We like to be careful not to demonize all things non-organic. Going organic is a choice, and anyone considering making a switch in one or more parts of his or her household should look at all sides of the equation.

For example, responsibly bottled water has saved lives in areas of the globe where water was either absent or contained potentially lethal parasites. 

On the other hand, when it comes to rubber, there really are some sticky issues.

Here some points from both sides to consider:

  • Natural rubber comes from a natural source: trees. Yes, it's processed, but if you must use a rubber product, natural-source materials are always best, in our opinion.
  • Synthetic rubber is produced from Neoprene. Though Neoprene itself is not considered unsafe for use, the gases it releases during its production (primarily Butadine can be toxic (in fact, Butadine is classified by the EPA as a toxic pollutant). Obviously, by the time you receive your commercial-rubber product, the gases have long since dissipated, but there's not much data on what residual particles linger.
  • On commercial rubber's side, non-Latex commercial rubber is available. If you or a loved one has a Latex allergy, which can be dangerous and in some cases, fatal, synthetic rubber may be your only option.
  • Another vote of confidence for commercial rubber is that overall, it tends to be more readily available.

The Verdict

There are some pluses to utilizing commercial/synthetic rubber. However, the toxicity during production as well as the less eco-friendly petroleum production mean we recommend you have as little of it in your home as possible (or none at all).

In some cases - your car, for instance - it's likely you will have to utilize some commercial rubber. But wherever possible, a person cultivating an organic home should minimize its use.