Latex is such an important material in the modern world. It is used to make mattresses, balloons, gloves, swim caps, and even catheters.
However, most people don’t know much about this versatile material. While some think it is a type of plastic, others believe it triggers allergies in all those who use it.
It is therefore not surprising that many don’t know whether it is biodegradable or not.
Not to worry though, that is where I, your resident sustainability geek, step in. And as is my duty, in today’s post I will let you know about this and so much more!
Is latex biodegradable?
While organic latex is biodegradable, natural, blended, or synthetic latex is not. Ultimately, the biodegradability of each type of latex is dependent on what it is made of.
What is latex made of?
Natural latex originates from Hevea brasiliensis trees (rubber trees) and is composed of approximately 55% water and 40% rubber. It is harvested by tapping the mature trees over some time.
Once enough latex is harvested, it is usually filtered and some acid is added to it to make it clump. This makes it easy to roll into sheets using a mill.
Afterward, the sheets are prevulcanized by heating them and adding chemicals. This makes them easier to transport and use. As such, most of the products made of natural latex aren’t pure; they have some chemicals.
Fortunately, that is where organic latex excels. It is literally just a cleaner version of natural latex. Not only are no chemicals added to it, but it is also farmed under strict organic practices.
For instance, the rubber tree plantations from which it is sourced are usually segregated and no chemical pesticides are used on them.
Also, to maintain their organic certification, they are regularly inspected and monitored by certifying agencies.
In fact, one of the best certifying agencies, Control Unions Certifications, even pioneered the first global standard for organic latex.
Known as Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS), this standard clearly outlines all that is required for latex to be considered organic. Ultimately, the standards and certifying bodies that govern this space are so thorough that there are only four manufacturers of organic latex worldwide.
As such, many manufacturers prefer synthetic latex, a material made from petroleum-based chemicals.
During its manufacture, these chemicals, Styrene and Butadiene, are mixed to make Styrene-Butadiene Rubber (SBR). This polymer is then clumped, dried, and transported to a manufacturing plant where it is mixed with other ingredients.
Afterward, the rubber is rolled into the sheets and processed through injection molding, extrusion, or compression molding.
Interestingly, sometimes manufacturers combine synthetic and natural latex to create a blended variation. These blends usually have 15% to 25% of natural latex and 75% to 85% of synthetic latex.
Many manufacturers would like you to believe that these blends offer the best of both worlds – the elasticity of natural latex and the strength of the synthetic one. But this is not the case.
Their natural latex concentrations are just way too low to impart the same elasticity levels as those of a purely natural product. These blends do have one major advantage though; they are significantly cheaper.
Ultimately, each type of latex has its own advantages and disadvantages; it’s up to you to decide which one is better suited to your needs.
Can latex products be recycled?
Some latex products can be recycled and others can’t.
For instance, while latex gloves can’t currently be recycled, latex mattresses can. So much so that some manufacturers provide recycling programs. Some states like Connecticut are even requiring mattress manufacturers to recycle their mattresses when the customers no longer want them.
So every time someone buys a mattress in Connecticut, a portion of the price paid is set aside to cater for its transportation and recycling when it’s no longer needed.
Considering that diverting a single mattress from a landfill saves up to 28 cubic meters of space, this requirement could be a real game-changer if adopted across different products and locations.
However, until that is possible, it’s up to you to ensure that the latex products you purchase and use can either be recycled or disposed of responsibly.
Are latex balloons biodegradable?
Latex balloons contain more than just organic latex, so they are not biodegradable.
They contain chemicals like antioxidants, preservatives, fire retardants, anti-fogging coatings, dyes, and fragrances. As such, they should never be composted, purposefully released, or thrown around aimlessly.
In fact, here are two dangers that they pose:
They can be harmful to wildlife and marine life
Studies show that balloons can travel more than 200 kilometers, a testament to their lightweight. This means that when released they can easily find their way to desert animals and those who live in game parks. And since animals are generally attracted to colorful things, they can easily mistake them for food and ingest them, resulting in choking and decreased nutrient absorption.
Even in cases that these balloons find themselves in water instead of land, they are a hazard. Fish and sea turtles could ingest them and suffer the same fate. And in the cases where they have balloon strings, they can entangle marine life as well.
They are bad for the environment
Apart from littering land, balloons also litter the seas and oceans.
In fact, data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that thousands of balloons can be removed from the waterways and shorelines during a one-day cleanup.
It is therefore not surprising that in states like Florida and California the willful release of balloons is restricted.
Think long term
From a sustainability standpoint, it is best to avoid natural, synthetic, and blended latex products unless you really need them. So if you’ve been thinking of getting some balloons for your birthday, you should get some flowers instead.
And in place of all those balloon-related activities, you could do some kite surfing. If you give it a little thought, you would be surprised how many eco-friendly options you have!