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Plastic Free Gardening Using Natural Rubber Seed Trays

What your seed tray is made of – and why that matters 
--Guest Blog-- By Marianne Landzettel

Conventional seed trays—another item we use and discard! What matters are the seeds and seedlings! Fast forward to that moment we’ve all experienced— when we’re done planting and have to deal with that pile of cracked, broken, useless plastic.

And dangerous waste at that: plastic does not decompose but eventually breaks up into tiny particles that pollute soils, rivers and oceans. Microplastic can be found in our drinking water, in the guts of animals and in human tissue. And, if the toxic legacy of a plastic tray wasn’t bad enough, consider what it’s made of: the raw material for all plastic is petroleum. And the uninhibited use of fossil fuels is at the heart of the climate crisis.

There is an alternative: seed trays made from Fairly Traded natural rubber. They are flexible but sturdy, they can be used for many years, the Fair Trade premium benefits the rubber producers, and rubber trees benefit the environment.

20-cell Natural Rubber Seed Tray stacked with one cut in half.

Let’s start with the environment: rubber trees have a large and densely leaved canopy and absorb more CO2 than an area of tropical rainforest of the same size.

Rubber tree forest with collection cup for collecting 'milk' sap to make natural rubber.

The Fairly Traded rubber that goes into the natural rubber seed trays and root coaches comes from Frocester, a rubber plantation on the west side of Sri Lanka.

From rubber tree to seed tray...

The work day begins early on a rubber plantation. The raw material for any rubber or latex product is the sap of the rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis). It flows best when it’s still cool outside. The rubber trees are planted in neat rows, their slender trunks grow straight and tall, the bark is fairly smooth and slightly mottled. Except during the rainy season, they will be tapped every third day. 

The tapper removes the white latex ‘skin’ that has formed where the tree has been tapped previously, and then takes off a tiny sliver of fresh bark: Right away the sap (or ‘latex milk’) starts to flow and form drops which will gradually drip into the bowl fixed to the trunk. Each tapper looks after the trees in his or her section and knows exactly which trees need to be tapped and which ones have a rest day. 

The sap flows for about 30 minutes, then the cut has dried off again. Time for the tappers to return to the trees and empty the latex milk into a bucket. How much sap a tree produces depends on many factors: the tree’s age, the season and humidity – when it’s dry, the trees produce less latex milk.

It’s late morning when the tappers bring the freshly collected sap to the collection points. While they wait for the tanker truck (it’s small, about the size of a pickup), it’s time for a break and a chat with co-workers. The driver of the collection truck and a staff member record the amount of latex milk each tapper delivers. And they measure the actual rubber content: the dry rubber content (DRC) makes up about a third of the fresh sap, the rest is mainly water. The sap is then taken to the factory.

For the tappers, the first part of their work day is over. Given the size of rubber tree plantations coupled with no public transport to enable a commute to work— tappers have traditionally lived on the plantation in small villages or row houses, so called ‘lines’. And that’s still the case on Horana (where our trays are made), too. 

Most workers end their morning with a walk home for a meal and some rest – imagine two very basic rooms with mud floors for a family of four or five. Often there is no sanitation, just access to outhouses in the back and a communal water tap. The Fair Trade funds help to bring improvements to the workers' lives, as they decide together how to use the funds for clean drinking water, education, pensions and the like.

The tappers will return to work again in the afternoon to do maintenance work – weeding between the trees, checking the rain guards during the rainy season (which protect the tree where the bark has been cut), and work in the tree nursery. Rubber trees remain productive for 25 to 30 years, sometimes longer, but eventually they need to be replaced. In the nursery cuttings from strong plants are grafted onto seedlings for ongoing renewal.

Rubber tree forest hillside, so green and lush, overlooking a valley

...Thank you, Marianne!

 

A priceless peek behind the scenes and into another corner of the world. This story is an illustration of what can be achieved when we work together and build on each other's efforts; everything is interconnected and making small changes, like replacing those plastic trays, can have big impacts! We are so honored to bring the fruit of these small farmers' labor to our customers to the benefit of a 'greener and fairer' world.

Next week Marianne will pick up the story when the freshly collected ‘latex milk’ arrives at the factory… 'Til then, check out our Natural Rubber Seed Trays here!

Happy seed starting and may your efforts lead to abundance in the new growing season!

Our best to you,
Theresa & Dan