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Forest-positive rubber sourcing: Is it time that cities (re)consider the wheel?

Capital Bikeshare Inaugural Ride, Washington, D.C. (Source, DDOT)

Our collective need for rubber is enormous; from hospital gloves, to electrical safety gear, to the innumerable number of tires supporting global economies on a daily basis. Natural rubber is crucial, as is the need to prolong our ability to harvest it ethically. The rubber manufacturing industry contributes largely to the increasing impactful weight of deforestation and the threat to conservation of natural areas, while adding to the worrisome effects of global pollution.

Why should cities care? Firstly, what happens in forests affects cities. Deforestation, biodiversity loss, and decline of overall socioeconomic resilience do and will have greater long-term impacts that will be increasingly difficult to abate. Secondly, major cities have a great, ongoing need for rubber – vehicle tires alone account for 76% of global consumption of natural rubber. Cities are where the rubber meets the road, both literally and metaphorically speaking as key centres of culture, economics, and change. Cities can take direct action through public procurement and contribute to shifting the way rubber is sourced, working towards industry sustainability.

The amount of global space dedicated to the sourcing of rubber continues to expand. From 2000 to 2016 the space allocated to global rubber harvesting doubled, resulting in close to 13 million hectares being used for rubber. It is estimated that three million hectares of forest have been lost to deforestation in the Mekong region since the early 2000s. The rapid development of large-scale rubber plantations has increased the use of monoculture crops. Without the proper maintenance of forest in certain areas, losses in local biodiversity have been observed and are expected to grow if business-as-usual practices continue.

Rubber farmer at Sabintulung village, Muara Kaman Muara Kaman Subdistrict, Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan. (Source, Ricky Martin/CIFOR)

With the vast majority of rubber coming from a very small portion of Asia, all of the negative effects of large scale rubber companies are concentrated in one part of the world. Smallholders make up the largest portion of sustainable rubber sourcing by taking up a fraction of the space that large-scale companies do, while continuing to uphold traditionally environmentally-conscious practices, are being phased out. Aside from environmental effects, land owners in these areas have faced the loss of their land to the rubber industry, with little-to-no consultation or warning. The cyclical effects these industrial operations have on families living in their proximity ranges from violence, to loss of income, to the depletion of resources like water and food.

How can we move towards a better future for rubber sourcing? For transit, healthcare, trades, and more; rubber is required for the successful functionality of a city. It is estimated that cities account for more than 70 percent of global emissions and contribute significantly to tropical deforestation, so there is a crucial need for cities to work consciously to reduce their environmental impacts. Fortunately for cities, FSC’s natural rubber certification program is working to conserve and improve biodiversity, socioeconomic resiliency, and prevent deforestation. Within cities, rubber is a prominent resource with great potential for change.

Fortunately there are recent precedents for just this type of change. Pirelli’s 2021 success in creating the Pirelli P Zero Tyre – made entirely of FSC-certified natural rubber, rayon, and natural materials – was made possible by groups of smallholders in the rubber industry. In certifying rubber plantations that adhere to the best environmental and socioeconomic practices, FSC certification is able to support the resolution of sustainable rubber production. Being a relatively new sector for certification, the partnership with Pirelli and BMW to create and use these tires is a massive step towards sustainability. Actions like these, and Schwalbe’s implementation of “Green Compound” for renewable, recycled tread rubber production are large steps towards sustainability for forests.

DDOT Director Gabe Klein thanks Mayor Adrian Fenty for his support of Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare program in 2008. Public acknowledgements of support from forest communities for forest-positive rubber are critical for spreading awareness and scaling support (Source, DDOT)

Where should cities start? Focusing on the creation of bicycle tires for city bike-share programs, within cities committed to climate neutrality like New York, Paris and Montreal, could be the perfect scale to pilot new procurement strategies. If not covered by city program funding, the added costs of implementing sustainably sourced, “Partner Forest” rubber could likely be covered by grants, user fees, advocacy organizations and more. With more than 20,000 bikes in circulation, Paris’ Vélib service could have a significant impact on tropical forests. Similarly, New York City’s 4,373 buses (one of the largest fleets of city buses in the world) could have an even greater impact with forest-positive tires. Opportunities like these could see the creation of a mutually beneficial Partner Forest program, where cities are able to take credit for conservation efforts and reduction in carbon emissions while contributing towards long-term sustainability goals. To help get started, the Forest Footprint for Cities provides further resources and guidance for cities to help the (forest-positive) rubber meet the road.

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