Circular economy

Can Dandelions Bounce Back?

By Nadya Krasnushkina for Kommersant | Updated on November 30, 2018

Dandelion Pixabay/Stux

In the 1930s, Russia experimented with making rubber from dandelion roots but abandoned the project after the war. Now, environmental and economic factors are reviving interest in this alternative raw material.

Oil palms—the source of the palm oil widely used in the commercial food industry—are usually the bad guys in any discussion of the impact of clearing forests to grow crops. Scientists maintain that replacing rainforests with these monocultures destroys biodiversity, deprives animals and birds of their natural habitats, and depletes soil and water resources. Moreover, run-off from fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and streams threatens fish and other creatures that live in freshwater environments.

Now, rubber plantations are getting that same bad rap, probably because of their dramatic expansion. The total area under rubber production worldwide has reached nearly 13 million hectares—up more than 2 million hectares from a decade ago. Researchers from the University of East Anglia estimate that to keep up with demand, another 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares will have to be planted by 2024. The environmental consequences could be catastrophic.

Most of the new plantations are in mainland Southeast Asia and Southwest China. To cite but one example of why this is worrisome, more than 70 percent of Cambodia’s Snoul wildlife sanctuary, home to rare species of birds and animals, was given over to rubber plantations between 2009 and 2013.

The tire industry uses 70 to 75 percent of the world’s natural rubber, yet only recently has it experienced the same kind of pressure exerted on palm-oil consumers to pay more attention to the sustainability of their supply chains and to combat deforestation. Indeed, goods made from natural rubber, derived from the latex tapped from rubber trees, are still often labeled “eco-friendly” in contrast to those made from synthetic rubber, which is made from petroleum.

As is the case with companies that use palm oil in their products, the tire industry’s environmental efforts are entirely voluntary; a leading example is the Sustainable Rubber Initiative launched at the beginning of 2015. Some companies are also taking their own measures. Last year, Michelin announced that it would not purchase any rubber grown on newly deforested land and declared its intention to work with suppliers and local authorities to develop sustainable forest management. Bridgestone, Goodyear and Continental followed suit, making similar policy changes.

And this past May, General Motors pledged to buy only tires made from sustainably grown rubber and announced that it would work with other vehicle and tire manufacturers to combat deforestation and to uphold human rights in rubber production. “We felt that it was our duty to take this step,” said GM Senior Vice-President Steve Kiefer, citing the fact that American carmakers purchase some 50 million tires annually.

Meanwhile, tire makers and car companies are also researching an entirely different solution to this problem, one whose roots literally and figuratively go back to a 1930s Soviet experiment.

Back then, it was already known that a number of plants besides the Hevea rubber tree also produce latex, and the Soviets, eager to have their own domestic rubber supply, launched a campaign to find them. They eventually discovered that two species of the Russian dandelion, the kok-saghyz and krym-saghyz, would do the trick. Both are native to the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains and Crimea. Before long, dandelions were being cultivated on a massive scale in Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States.

Plant selection for favorable traits was a long, slow process, however, and by the time the USSR entered the Second World War, it still depended on its allies for rubber. Following the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in 1942, around 97 percent of the world’s production of natural rubber was concentrated in the hands of the Axis powers, forcing the USA and Britain to devote intensive efforts to developing synthetic rubber. Dandelion rubber never did become commercially viable, and the Soviets abandoned the project after the war.

Today, dandelion research is bouncing back thanks to economic and environmental challenges as well as new developments in selection and genetic engineering. Advocates cite numerous advantages: Dandelions can be grown in northern climates close to industrial centers, a proximity that significantly reduces logistics costs and greenhouse gas emissions. The plants are very low-maintenance, can be grown on land not suitable for conventional agriculture, and harvesting can be fully automated. And their production cycle is much shorter than that of the Hevea—one year vs. seven to eight years—making it possible to react quickly to spikes in demand.

It will probably be at least another 10 to 15 years before dandelion rubber becomes a viable alternative for the car industry. More research is needed into resistance to pests and diseases, and no one has yet developed simple and effective methods for controlling the spread of the plant. As any gardener will tell you, dandelions are persistent weeds whose seeds are carried by the wind, presenting the possibility of crossbreeding with indigenous species. These issues will be among the genetic selection criteria during the coming years.

Another unresolved problem is the fact that only 10 to 15 percent of the plant is used in rubber production, which means huge volumes of waste. One potential solution is the production of inulin, a polysaccharide used as a source of dietary fiber and in the production of prebiotics, now typically made from chicory root. The inulin market too small, however, to absorb all the waste. Yet another challenge is the availability of land; motivating farmers to grow the new crop will probably require government subsidies.

Among the companies sponsoring dandelion rubber research are Bridgestone, Cooper Tire, Goodyear, Ford, Linglong and Sumitomo Rubber. The German tire firm Continental has emerged as leader of the pack; in 2014 it received the GreenTec Award in the Automobility category for its project to develop snow tires with treads manufactured entirely from dandelion rubber.

Continental still regards this venture as a “major entrepreneurial risk” but is forging ahead nonetheless. Earlier this year, the company, whose annual revenue is around €40 billion, announced its intention to invest €35 million in the construction of a laboratory for the production of dandelion rubber in the German town of Anklam. It will also increase crop area from 15 to 800 hectares over the next five years, enabling it to move into commercial-scale production. If all goes as planned, the harvest will go “from grams to kilos to tons,” as one enthusiastic executive put it.

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Published on October 27, 2017
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