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Plastic Free Gardening Using Natural Rubber Seed Trays-- PART II

Guest Blog-- By Marianne Landzettel

Seed trays made from Fairly Traded natural rubber are flexible, sturdy, and can be used for many years. The Fair Trade premium benefits the rubber producers, and the rubber trees benefit the environment. 

Last week we delved into the story of natural rubber seed trays, which starts on the plantation when the rubber trees are tapped. We pick up the story with Marianne this week when the freshly collected ‘latex milk’ arrives at the factory.

How the sap from a tree becomes a seed tray ________________________________________________________________

The work in the factory starts a little later than in the rest of the plantation. Collecting the latex milk is the first step - now it needs to be processed. Most plantations have a factory in which to do that and workers there have the ‘luxury' of starting slightly later than the tappers, who have to get up before the crack of dawn.

The tanker trucks with the freshly collected latex milk delivers it to the factory where it goes straight into a large basin. Once formic acid is added, the ‘milk’ starts to coagulate – like cow’s milk to which you add a few drops of lemon juice. But there is still lots of water that needs to come out.

The coagulated latex pieces are put through sets of rollers until they look like large, flat sheets. Once they have been dried (and/or smoked) the rubber sheets have become a raw material processors can work with – to produce anything from tires to hot water bottles, soles for shoes - or seed trays!

Seed trays are shaped in a casting mold – think of a sophisticated waffle iron... Other rubber products, like rubber gloves for example, are made by dipping a hand-shaped and sized mold into liquid latex. Turning raw latex milk into liquid latex for dipping is slightly more complicated than producing rubber sheets; not all factories on rubber plantations can do it.

For any rubber product the last step in its production is vulcanization: it’s a heat treatment that renders the rubber stable, similar to a dough that is transformed into a cake through baking. With the exception of products that are designed for single use, like surgical gloves, all rubber products are now ready to be used again and again, often for years to come – like our root trainers and seed trays.

For both seed trays and root trainers, a black color pigment is added during production. The dark color protects the rubber from sunlight and extends the lifespan of the product.

The Fair Trade Movement

Maybe you shop for organic produce? In that case you are well versed in spotting logos on packaging. Next to the organic logo you may often find a Fair Trade one, too: for example on chocolate, bananas, tea, coffee and flowers.

The Fair Trade movement started in the 1970s. At the time many consumers became aware of the appalling conditions on banana plantations and ‘woke’ coffee drinkers began to realize, that the price for coffee beans on the world market had dropped so low, they didn’t even cover the farmers’ costs of production. The idea was (and still is) to pay a slightly higher price, thereby empowering producers to change their living and working conditions for the better. 

Fair Trade seed trays? Yes! Rubber can be Fairly Traded, too.

Most of us buy cocoa, coffee or bananas on a regular basis. However, apart from the tires on your cars – which consume 70% of the global rubber productions, few will find themselves contemplating the working conditions on rubber plantations. Unfortunately, as with coffee, the price for rubber on the world market has been fluctuating wildly for years and many times has dropped below the cost of production. This price rollercoaster has implications for how rubber plantations are run, the working and living conditions of tappers, and the fate of the legions of small farmers who try to make a living from the few rubber trees they own.

The Fair Rubber Association was founded in 2012 to initiate some change. The association works with companies which agree to pay a Fair Trade premium for every pound of rubber they use to manufacture their rubber products. In return, the products can make use of the Fair Rubber logo. 

Improving Lives

The Fair Trade premium goes directly to their supplier partners – tappers and rubber workers on plantations or small scale farmers. The workers and farmers decide what to do with the premium. And once you look at the projects tappers and rubber workers decided to finance with the Fair Trade premium, you get an idea of just how bad the living conditions are. 

Many plantations first opted for tanks and pipes for clean drinking water. Contaminated water sources often caused diarrhea and dysentery. 

On one plantation there are even community showers all funded by Fair Rubber premiums.

Another group of workers opted for an additional pension plan so that older workers can afford to buy or rent a place. In some countries, once retired, workers and tappers lose the right to live on the plantation. 

There are funds for grants or low interest loans for education, serious illness, starting a small business, and for unforeseen situations of need. The alternative is predatory money lenders taking interest rates of up to 600%. 

One plantation set up a playground with swings and other equipment.

In Frocester, the plantation that supplies the rubber used for the seed trays, workers decided to connect a remote part of the plantation to the power grid. This allows kids to do their homework after dark without resorting to using kerosine lamps, which are highly dangerous. 

And Fair Rubber premiums are opening doors to further education for youth!

And the list goes on…

Fair Rubber - Making the World a Better Place

Founder of the Fair Rubber Association is Martin Kunz, a Fair Trade pioneer and the first General Secretary of Fair Trade Labelling International. He helped to get Fair Trade USA (then TransFair USA) off the ground, as well.

Martin is a keen gardener and cares deeply about organic agriculture, the environment and good soil. Using plastic seed trays for his organic, heirloom seeds – some of them from Prairie Road Organic – went against everything he believes in. 

Martin designed seed trays and root trainers which are produced by a company in Sri Lanka and are of course made with Fair Trade rubber from the Frocester plantation. And once he started to think about plastic free gardening, there was no stopping. Among the new products are rubberized twine made from sheep’s wool, fair trade cotton and rubber gardening gloves, bamboo plant labels.... Watch this space! 

...Thank you, Marianne!

Again... a priceless peek behind the scenes and into another corner of the world. This is a story of collaboration and dedication to making the world a more livable place and bettering the lives of others, while protecting our green earth! 

Everything is interconnected and making even small changes, like replacing those plastic trays, is having big impacts! We are so honored to bring the fruit of these small farmers' labor, that of the factory workers, Martin, and of all their collaborators working for Fair Rubber and Fair Trade to our customers-- to the benefit of a 'greener and fairer' world.

Next week Marianne will pick up the story with a day in the life of Lalita, one of the factory workers at the Frocester rubber plant … 'Til then, check out our Prairie Road Gardener collection of Natural Rubber Seed Trays, gardening gloves, rubberized gardening twine and Marianne's new book, Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits

Have a great growing season, blessed with abundance! Enjoy!

Our best to you,
Theresa & Dan