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GM goes "green" for millions of its tires

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【Summary】U.S. auto giant General Motors announced Monday that it will be committed to buying sustainable natural rubber for its 49 million tires annually.

Original Claire    May 16, 2017 11:00 AM PT
GM goes

U.S. auto giant General Motors announced Monday that it will be committed to buying sustainable natural rubber for its 49 million tires annually. The move will allow the company to protect the natural rubber business, while maintaining the quality of its car models.

This is the first time an automaker has publicly announced its initiative to opt for natural rubber for automotive tires. The company is now developing a series of purchasing standards for sustainably harvested rubber, and is calling for other counterparts to take similar action, to help reduce deforestation and maintain the local industry of growing natural rubber trees.

"This isn't just about going green," said David Tulauskas, GM's director of sustainability. "It's about driving real business results."

The tire suppliers that GM currently works with include Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, and Michelin. Both the automaker and the suppliers stressed they can't fully replace natural rubber tires with synthetic ones.

"The properties you get from that material, we haven't been able to replicate in the laboratory," said Juan Botero, Continental's vice president of original equipment sales of passenger and light truck tires for the Americas. "Mother Nature does a fantastic job."

Why natural rubber is better?

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Natural rubber is also called "India rubber". It is an elastomer that was originally derived from latex, a milky colloid produced by rubber trees.

The process of getting latex from the rubber trees is called tapping: by making incisions on the tree's bark, the sticky milky latex is drawn off and collected in vessels. The milky substance is then refined into rubber for commercial processing.

Compared with synthetic rubber, natural rubber is cleaner and safer. It has a large stretch ratio, high resilience, and its extremely waterproof, which are properties synthetic rubber cannot attain. Meanwhile, rubber trees only grow in places near the equator and are highly susceptible to disease. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are the major three countries for natural rubber production. Nearly 70% of the natural rubber produced is used for tire production.

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It usually takes 5 to 7 years to grow a rubber tree and get it prepared for tapping. In recent months, the price of natural rubber has fluctuated, due to several different factors: the natural rubber exports limit set by the three southeast Asian countries, weather-related supply disruptions, and new countries that are joining the natural rubber business. The fluctuating prices have affected local rubber tree farmers, especially small business owners. GM hopes the move could have tremendous effects on supporting their production, and improve the yield and quality of natural rubber.

In 2016, the total amount of natural rubber production was less than 11.6 million tons, while the consuming amount was 12.6 million tons. The higher demand over supply situation is making tire prices surge. Although both GM and tire suppliers said they don't know the actual cost of using more sustainable farming practices, the industry hopes it will be equal to, or ultimately less than today.

GM plans to meet with stakeholders starting in June to set requirements for rubber purchasing and develop an industry road map by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the automaker said it will also devote time and resources to help tire makers, work with the governments and rubber industry associates to implement natural rubber policies. This way, the supply chain complexities can be reduced.



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