The Early Bird Catches the... Rubber Band
When rubber bands start to pop up all around the rugged landscape of an uninhabited island, shouldn’t it sound a caution against our careless consumption? Why would a man-made item like this be strewn across Mullion Island, an island off the beautiful coast of Cornwall?
Well, like the worms they are mistaken for, rubber bands are an issue that resurface occasionally, only to be forgotten again. The sheer utility and versatility of the common rubber band shields it from garnering the notorious reputation earned by other environmental pests such as plastic bottles and bags. Unfortunately, the sinister truth is that we have here a perfectly reusable item which does not breakdown easily in landfill* and unlike plastic bottles and bags, recycling is not possible. Even companies that might recycle rubber and are actively searching for more, do not mention rubber bands. The fact that the common rubber band is easy and cheap to produce, only compounds the problem.
REUSING RUBBER BANDS So, why are they still ending up in landfill when they can be reused? My burning question is, why can’t they be reintroduced into the industries that use them? Instead, ideas on ways to reuse them range from inspired(1)to the insane(2), and everything in between(3). Whilst I agree that many of these ideas are useful, even necessary, netizens should be focusing their energy on generating interest on return-to-source movements.
Growing up, I do not recall throwing away the the bounty of rubber bands we accumulated over the years , the final fate of which I do not know. I do remember many a tense battle scene between ‘cops’ and ‘robbers’ played out on a terrain of cushions and pillows. Armed with rulers and rubber bands, we would have so much fun until someone took a particularly accurate and painful aim: usually my brother! In primary school, my favourite game was called zero point(4) or lompat getah (jump rubber). It was literally a long, stretchy rope made from old rubber bands and provided us with hours of fun, putting a safe twist on the traditional high jump and other traditional jump rope games.
Obviously, I do not play zero point or cops-and-robbers anymore, and these days a handphone or PS4 console apparently serves up more fun, for young people, than a long stretchy band. So, what am I to do with the rubber bands that supermarkets and green grocers insist of using? One online suggestion was to donate them to a post office. My attempt, while successful, left me deflated. One staff was enthusiastic, but her superior was non-committal and politely told me that they received boxes of new ones from HQ. His response made me feel as if I had burdened AusPost.
POSTAL SERVICES The confusion and reluctance of the staff clearly illustrated that rubber bands are not on the radar as far as corporate social responsibility endeavours go. In a reply to a concerned citizen who suggested that AusPost consider a TerraCycle recycling program for rubber bands, an AusPost Community Moderator replied:
“We see the opportunity for all ‘waste’ to be a resource and are pleased that you
reached out. We are however focusing on some of our larger impact products
that we put onto the market, especially our packaging range. As a first step
we have commenced some customer research to understand recycling, take-
back behaviours and the opportunities that Australia Post can support with.
We acknowledge that we have a shared responsibility to ensure that we reduce
the impact of our products at their end of life. Our existing partnership with
Terracycle is focused on recycling our mailing satchels and selling their zero waste
boxes through our online store.”
Given that AusPost is already playing a vital role with TerraCycle for so many items, it would be unfair to pass judgement too quickly. However, postal services around the world are one of the largest consumers of rubber bands and so, the onus on them to continue finding solutions that do not just limit the use but close the loop is undeniable. In the UK, there were attempts to do just that. After getting a lot of flak for littering and environmental concerns in the 2000s(5), Royal Mail UK established a rubber band recycling scheme whereby they could be returned, free of charge, to: Royal Mail, Rubber Band Recycling Department, Freepost, Tomb Street, Belfast BT1 1AA. Sadly, problems persist to this day and there is no evidence of this scheme on the Royal Mail website. However, a hard search of the internet revealed this quiet nondescript statement(6) entitled, RM/CWU/Unite Joint Environmental Initiative & Statement.
That is great news, but marine life and birds are dying from rubber bands! This is not the time for quintessential British reticence. The reason why Britons themselves are not sure whether this scheme exists is because the statement is firstly headed with a title using the word ‘elastic’ rather than ‘rubber’ and therefore making it hard to search. Secondly, there is no evidence of such a scheme on their official website and I suspect, no aggressive promotion on a local level. People are so uninformed even when there is a scheme, that one individual spent six years collecting 10,000 bands off the streets and demanding Royal Mail pay £800,000 in littering fines(7).
Just from these examples in Australia and the UK, it is clear there seems to be a reluctance from private corporations and government bodies to initiate a simple return-and-reuse program on a national level. As I searched for other avenues, I did come across places in Melbourne like CERES(8) and SPAN Community House(9) that collect rubber bands to be reused. The existence of such places proof that a return-and-reuse program can succeed as a local agenda that could be run by councils in libraries, post offices etc.
A HUNDRED MILLION REASONS WHY AND MORE But, why does the world need so many rubber bands in the first place? In the case of the Mullion Island mess, experts discovered that gulls were importing rubber bands from horticultural fields on the mainland, where rubber bands are used to tie bunches of flowers. Besides the flower industry and postal services, newspaper delivery services and vegetable bundling in supermarkets worldwide consume hundreds of millions of these things. In Asian countries, street food vendors and even restaurants buy large quantities of this hardy stuff. In Australia, Coles and Woolworth would be the most likely candidates, given their financial capacity, to switch to banding with (bio)film and paper rather than bundling with rubber bands. The technology does exist(10) albeit overseas but change they must. It is that or introduce a return-and-reuse campaign in all stores. How hard can it be?
In the United States, one company alone produces 13 million pounds of bands annually. The Alliance Rubber Company claims that “these bands could be laid end-to-end and easily encircle the globe 23 times”11. I shuddered as I conjured up this image. Their sales press kit tagline reads, Holding Your World Together. I had other ideas in mind! Ironically, a strong company like this cannot even compare to the proliferation of rubber bands entering their own country and had to petition(12) the federal government “to penalize foreign rubber makers who sell their products…for far less than the normal value set by U.S. trade laws.” What does this say about total global production figures?
30 million pounds of rubber bands are sold in the US each year. And in this video(13) on how rubber bands are made, we learn that the factory featured can produce half a million rubber bands in an hour. These numbers underpin the urgency for action. We are not talking about halting production but admittedly, in my ideal world where all the common rubber bands are reused, demand for it will slow down to an inefficient rate. Somehow, I strongly believe, that the industry can work around this problem because there are many other industrial and medical grade rubber bands, for example orthodontic bands, that are single use and with the raw material being so versatile, diversification or modification of their production lines are easily achieved. Forgive me if this sounds like BS but I honestly do not know enough to expand on this part. Still, common sense, for the future of the planet, must prevail.
LOOM BANDS AND LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENTS Upon consideration of the general LCA(14) on rubber bands, it becomes apparent that the true cost of making them is very high. Definitely, its current prices do not come close to representing the whole picture. In the earlier mentioned video, factory workers are operating in a toxic environment (especially the exposure from heavy metals in talcum powder) without sufficient protective equipment. In addition, the cost and impact of repeated cross-country transportation of raw materials to manufacturers, and then to retailers is simply not factored in accurately. Other elements not materially considered include:
· The acquisition of raw materials: large scale conversion of tropical forests and impact on biodiversity, low minimum wages and poor welfare for rubber tappers
· The manufacturing process: factory wastewater
· Pollution incurred through transportation of the finished product
· Difficulty in Recycling
· Poor Waste Management
The above considerations do not even cover the fact that many bands are made from non-latex or synthetic rubber which are petroleum-based polymers; so Silly Bandz and loom bands be gone! And, what if prices of rubber bands were increased to better reflect the real cost? Would companies be inclined to consume less, and would they then have the incentive to reuse them? Would concert and event promoters stop dishing out bands? Would people be able to see through this video(15), entitled ‘Rubber bands to save the world’ and realise what a scary joke it is (especially 55 seconds into the video)?
THE LITTLE PEOPLE I started this website as a blog to track my actions and decisions. To that end, I have written to the non-profit organisation I volunteer at, to suggest some changes they could bring forward to the supermarket they partner with, either in terms of finding an alternative solution to bundling vegetables with rubber bands or spearheading a return-and-reuse movement that would be in line with both parties’ environmental targets. Apart from the CEO’s kind acknowledgement of my suggestions, his staff have failed to get in touch with me. Next step: letters to supermarkets and councils. This topic has taken me on an interesting journey, and I intend to keep going with it.
Thanks for reading.
*only natural latex rubber bands are biodegradable, and this is provided conditions are right, i.e. level of oxygen. Many end up submerged in landfill where this is not the case. Other varieties are made from synthetic rubber which do not break down.
1. Margarita Mileva; https://www.shoplet.com/blog/office-supplies/recycling-of-the-architecture-office/
2. Rubber Band Face Challenge; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DPS3NV9KxU
4. zero point; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMGaBak5fw8
9. SPAN Community House; https://spanhouse.org/get-involved/sustainable-sundays/
11. https://www.rubberband.com/public/userfiles/sales-collateral/PressKit.pdf Alliance Rubber Company press kit with the slogan Holding Your World Together.
13. How Rubber Bands are Made; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEIAYBGRyYY
14. Life Cycle Assessment of Rubber Bands; http://www.designlife-cycle.com/rubber-bands
15. Rubber Bands to Save the World; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP2SJvLV86A