The global auto-industry means that we now consume about 2.84 billion new tyres every year. Natural rubber comes from the rubber-tree (hevea brasiliensis). It grows well in tropical climates and most production comes from southeast Asia.
The rubber plantations that produce a staggering 13.6 million tons of rubber annually, cover an estimated 12 million hectares – six times the size of Wales. In 2015, a University of East Anglia report predicted that just one decade’s growth in rubber demand would require the clearing of an area of land and rainforest four times the size of Wales. The amount of natural rubber produced annually has doubled since the year 2000.
Tyres themselves are a complex concoction of natural and synthetic rubber, and a host of chemical additives. The natural rubber content varies between 15 to 30 per cent; and tyre manufacturing overall consumes about 70 per cent of global natural rubber production.
Whether the latest car is electric or fossil-fuelled, its tyres are levelling rainforests, polluting our oceans and damaging human lungs.
Precious rainforests in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Congo are increasingly being lost, threatening some of the richest diversity of mammal populations left on earth – and deforestation at 10 per cent is one of the leading causes of climate destruction, according to the UN.
In Sumatra, this deforestation threatens the Sumatran orangutan with extinction. In 1900, there were 85,000 Sumatran orangutans spread across the island. But there are now less than 15,000 orangutans. The greatest threat to orangutans is habitat loss. The Sumatran forests are being razed to the ground, to be replaced with vast rubber and palm oil plantations serving the global commodity markets.
Orangutans are one of our closest cousins, sharing 97 per cent of our homo-sapiens’ DNA. The Malay word orangutan means, “person of the forest”. They are frugivores, and live almost all of their lives in the trees. Females only give birth once every eight to nine years, with offspring not reaching adulthood until they are about 16. Every single female lost threatens this critically endangered species’ survival.