How is natural latex harvested?
It's a year since my partner, myself and a couple of our good amigos traveled far and wide to the beautiful lands of Thailand. While there it was a mission of mine to learn some more about the origins of latex since it is a product I promote so much back home in our furniture. The process of harvesting natural latex is surprisingly simple, and also very environmentally sustainable! We have found that there is a lot of confusion about what natural latex is and where it comes from. We feel that providing more information about the process of harvesting natural latex will help everyone understand why we love selling and using it in our furniture so much!
Shortly after arriving we made our way to the small island of Koh Mak in the Koh Chang Archipelago. It is a 16 square Km island and is 60% covered with rubber trees.
The most important part of the natural latex foam manufacturing process is the rubber tree. Rubber trees are native to South America, but in the early 1800’s, people started attempting to cultivate them in larger areas. Rubber trees are so economically valuable that they ended up spreading quite far, from South America to just about every other tropical area in the world including Thailand.
Rubber tree plantations have far less of a negative impact on the land than other crops, and they encourage much more biological diversity than other monoculture crops. It takes between 6-10 years of growth before the rubber tree starts producing sufficient amounts of latex. This waiting period ensures that new rubber trees are being planted continuously.
Latex is a milky fluid found in the bark of rubber trees. Continuous tubes of latex known as “latex vessels” grow in a spiral around the bark of the rubber tree. When harvesting, the bark is very carefully stripped away to expose the latex vessels. The latex then runs down the side of the tree into some sort of a container (often a coconut shell).
The latex flows out of the tree quite slowly, and flows mostly at night. It usually takes half a day before the container fills all the way up with latex. Harvesting is only done on days with no rain to ensure the latex is not diluted by rainwater. When harvesting latex, the workers will make these small cuts into the bark. Since the latex vessels are right near the surface, this process doesn’t require cutting very deeply into the tree. Shallow cuts allow the tree to be harvested for a longer period of time. Each panel of bark that is cut into will yield latex for six years. After six years, the opposite side is cut into for six years, which allows the first side to heal. This process is then repeated at a slightly different height on the tree. Each rubber tree will be harvested for 24 years. After 24 years the trees stop producing as much latex. They are cut down and the wood is used to make furniture or other items. The plantations are then replanted with new rubber trees, thus completing the cycle.
The plantations on the island would mix in water and a hardener, pour the latex into trays and let the liquid firm up for approx. 18 hours. From here it is flattened out into sheets using a roller then left out in the sun (or a smoke house) to cure for 2-8 days prior to being shipped to a processing plant . Stay tuned for a part two to this blog outlining the different types of processes and what we use in our furniture everyday.
Thank you for reading, hope this was interesting and informative!
Photography by my travel companion/talented photographer: Jenn Haffner