GM commits to sustainable natural rubber for tires

Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, and Michelin will help lead the change to greener tires.

General Motors buys a lot of tires. About 49 million a year, in fact. As part of its sustainability efforts, the automaker announced a goal of 100-percent sustainability for its natural rubber needs, and suppliers like Bridgestone, Continental, Goodyear, and Michelin – which were all represented at GM's announcement this week in Detroit – ­are on board, too.

The partners also want to uphold labor rights for those in the rubber industry, conserve wildlife, and preserve carbon stocks, all while still producing quality products without raising costs. Together, they aim to set the standard for sustainable and ethical rubber, holding every member of the supply chain accountable, and encouraging other suppliers and customers to follow suit. Traceability and transparency are keys, GM says, to making sure the rubber doesn't lead to deforestation, and that it contributes to the economic and social development of the areas where it's harvested.

Manufacturers simply can't build as good of a tire without natural rubber.

Natural rubber will continue to be part of tire manufacturing for the foreseeable future. As Dr. Juan Botero, Continental VP of Sales of Passenger & Light Truck Tires for the Americas, points out, "The properties that you get from that material, unfortunately, we have not been able to replicate in a laboratory. Mother nature does a fantastic job with this material." At this point, manufacturers simply can't build as good of a tire without natural rubber. Over the years, advances have allowed them to use a smaller ratio of natural rubber, but it still makes up 10 to 15 percent of a passenger car's tires, up to around 30 percent for a truck, and even higher for larger vehicles.

Proper management is critical to making natural rubber more sustainable. It's better, of course, to make the most of existing trees than to clear land for new plantations, and all participating parties aim to dramatically increase their yield as demand continues to grow. It's also important to protect rubber trees from disease, as their limited growing range makes them particularly susceptible. At the end of their lifecycle of about 20 years, the trees can harvested for their wood, and new ones are replanted in their place.

About 12 million tons of natural rubber is harvested each year; 75 percent of it is used for tires.

Beyond natural rubber, which is just one component of a tire, companies are looking at other ways to help make their products more sustainable. Dandelion latex shows promise as a low-impact substitute for some natural rubber needs. Manufacturers are exploring other eco-friendly alternatives to current raw materials. Goodyear VP of Global Procurement Mark Purtilar tells us waste stream products from sugar cane, corn stover, and switchgrass are candidates for bio-based isoprene. He also points to rice husk ash as a replacement for silica, which reduces rolling resistance in tire compounds. Other holistic elements include reducing energy consumption in the manufacturing process, sharing best practices, partnering with universities and other organizations for research and development, and improving recycling programs for tires.

The natural rubber industry produces about 12 million tons per year, 75 percent of which is used in the tire industry. GM and the participating tire manufacturers hope this initiative will make a difference in their impact, as well as that of the other customers that share their supply chain. The sustainable natural rubber plan is in its early stages, and we can expect more announcements about this initiative in the future. We'll learn more about the methods through which the industry will pursue its sustainability commitments at the Michelin Movin' On conference (formerly Challenge Bibendum) next month. GM says it expects to have an industry sustainability roadmap by the end of the year.

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