Is Latex Biodegradable?

Latex is a rubber product that is sometimes biodegradable.
Latex is a rubber product that is sometimes biodegradable. (Image: NA/ Images)

The term latex refers to one of two possible definitions. The first definition refers to the milky, white product of the rubber tree that is used to make natural rubber. The second definition refers to a synthetic product made from petroleum. Rubber made from natural latex is biodegradable but synthetic rubber is not. However, the term biodegradable has degrees of meaning and natural latex is not as biodegradable as bread or certain other man-made products.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

A material that is biodegradable is able to be broken down into basic, elementary particles through natural processes, such as various forms of weathering and the passage of time. Prior to the industrial age, nearly everything humans produced was biodegradable. Synthetic products, made from chemicals rather than natural products, often resist weathering to such an extent that people categorize them as non-biodegradable.

Degrees Of Biodegradability

Virtually every man-made product is biodegradable because everything eventually breaks down into more basic particles. When people use the term biodegradable, they are really referring to the rate at which something breaks down. An aluminum can will shed aluminum atoms, which are certainly natural, but at such a slow rate that a human lifetime will not witness much of a change. A piece of bread, even though it is man-made, will break down or be consumed by animals at a much quicker rate.

Natural Latex

Rubber manufacturers derive natural latex primarily from rubber trees, which are native to Brazil. These trees were successfully transplanted to Southeast Asia over a century ago. Latex producers tap the trees, which produce a milky, white fluid. This fluid is treated and concentrated to create natural latex rubber. From this substance, manufacturers make a variety of products, such as gloves and condoms. Items made from natural latex are biodegradable but they biodegrade at a much slower rate than other substances. They are not edible, so only weathering can break them down into their elementary particles.

Synthetic Rubber

Synthetic rubber is made from petroleum. This latter substance is natural, as is latex, but rubber producers put the petroleum through a process known as polymerization. This process creates long chains of molecules called polymers. These polymers are designed to resist weathering. They do not break down anywhere nearly as fast as natural latex. Products made from synthetic rubber include many toys, car tires and plastic gloves.

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