The birth of the humble rubber band

It was on this day, 17 March 1845, that the elastic rubber band, made from vulcanised rubber, was patented by it’s English inventor Stephen Perry. Around the same time, Jaroslav Kurash also independently came up with his version of the rubber band.

While this counts as the ‘invention of the modern rubber band’, it is by no means the first occurrence in history of these super-useful little binding tools. Many years before the Mayans had already used the sap from rubber trees to create elastic strands to bind things together.

The rubber band - another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.(© All Rights Reserved)
The rubber band – another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From their modern-day invention in 1845 it took almost 80 years before William Spencer first started mass producing rubber bands in Ohio, USA. And the rest, as they say, is history – it is nigh impossible to imagine a world without rubber bands.

Throughout history two types of rubber have been used to manufacture rubber bands – natural rubber or latex from rubber trees, and synthetic rubber, a by-product of crude oil refinement. Modern day rubber bands are basically created by extruding rubber into long tubes of varying colour, thickness and diameter. These elastic tubes are sliced into thin circles, creating rubber bands as we know them.

Very simply stated, rubber consists of chains of molecules bonded in such a way that the molecules can move, thus allowing the rubber to be stretched. The bonds between the molecules pull them back together again, causing rubber’s elasticity. Of course it is possible to stretch a rubber band too far, severing the bonds between the molecules, and causing the rubber band to snap. Over time, light and heat also weakens the chains of molecules, resulting in the bands to get brittle and more readily breakable.

Can you believe that the biggest rubber band ball (a ball created by wrapping rubber bands around each other ) was created by Joel Waul in 2008 in Florida, USA? It weighed a whopping 9400 pounds, exceeded 8 feet in height, and consisted of more than 700 000 rubber bands!?

Tires, rubber, burnouts and environmental disasters

Fancy a burnout? A donut, perhaps?

No, I’m no street racer, not even much of a petrol-head. I’ve just got rubber and tires on my mind, since today back in 1900 is the day that the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company was founded. Even through Firestone cannot lay claim to inventing rubber tires (that honour goes to John Boyd Dunlop for the first pneumatic tire, and to Charles Goodyear for the vulcanisation of natural rubber), they were one of the early pioneers in tire production. Along with Goodyear, they were the largest automotive tire suppliers in the US for the best part of the 20th century.

The company was sold to the Japanese Bridgestone Corporation in 1988.

Tire burnouts can be spectacular, but certainly doesn’t help in terms of scrap tire pollution.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Given the number of tires produced and sold internationally, the environmental challenges of dealing with scrap tires are quite significant. In the US alone, about 285 million scrap tires are generated every year. Tires dumped in a landfill is a fire hazard – tire fires can burn for months, creating serious air and soil pollution. They can also liquify under high temperatures, releasing hydrocarbons and other harmful contaminants into the ground. Shredded tire pieces are likely to leach even more, due to the increased surface area on the shredded pieces.

The durability of scrap tires do make it suitable for certain recycling applications. Shredded tires, or tire derived aggregate (TDA), can be used as backfill for retaining walls and as vibration damping for railway lines. Ground and crumbed rubber, also known as size-reduced rubber, can be used in paving as well as in moldable products such as flooring, decking, tiles and rubber bricks. These applications, however, only consume a small percentage of the total tire waste produced annually.

The use of tires has also been suggested in the construction of artificial reefs, but the sensibility of this is questionable, with the Osborne Reef, for example, turning into a multi-million dollar environmental nightmare.

Despite all the attempts at solving the problem of scrap tire waste, it remains an environmental nightmare, and the best ‘solution’ probably involves addressing the problem at it’s source – reducing the number of scrap tires produced annually.  Small things such as driving sensibly to preserve tire life, carpooling, use of public transport, walking and cycling instead of driving – these may appear arbitrary, but are things we can all do, and while it won’t make the problem go away, it can make a difference in the long run.