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July 14, 2004 7:20 PM   Subscribe

The fascinating story of rubber starts here.
posted by euphorb (4 comments total)
Compare the story of Reverend Rubber
Many forget about Father Nieuwland. He was an unassuming man who stayed mostly in his laboratory, often eating and sleeping there, stretched out on the lab bench, a rolled up lab coat as a pillow. He refused any royalties on his creation due to his vow of poverty as a priest. Yet we must not forget this creator of chloroprene [neoprene], possibly the greatest figures in industrial invention.
with this recent price fixing scandal.
Dow and DuPont, the two largest U.S. chemical companies, have already disclosed that their DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC joint venture received a subpoena last year in connection with investigations into the synthetic rubber markets for possible antitrust violations, including price fixing.

Sven Dopke, an analyst at M.M. Warburg, said in a note that Bayer had built financial provisions for the investigations in 2003. "We estimate a coverage of up to 110 million euros," he wrote.

The newspaper report said at least four grand-jury investigations stemming from the probes were under way in San Francisco. Among the latest products under scrutiny are a widely used plastic, urethane, and a synthetic rubber known as neoprene, the newspaper cited lawyers close to the case as saying.
posted by euphorb at 7:23 PM on July 14, 2004

Interesting stuff, euphorb, and I plan to give it all a perusal. I have some exposure to the rubber industry, and it's full of fascinating and pertinent details. Few people realize how dependant society is on rubber. It's everywhere.

It's interesting how important and short-supplied rubber was during WWII, shaping the allocation of forces around the natural rubber supply chain (blockades, etc) and sparking intense research into synthetic rubber (made largely from petroleum products which are now used even in the gum bases of much chewing gum.) At one point the U.S. wanted liquor distilleries to shift alcohol production to supply synthetic rubber production for the war.

Malachy McCourt, actor and Frank McCourt's brother, has an interesting anecdote in his first autobigraphy A Monk Swimming, detailing his work as a longshoreman on the NY docks. Occasionally they had to unload huge chunks and bales of natural rubber, which occasionally slipped or broke from the grasp of the cranes, bouncing around like odd-shaped superballs and sending longshoremen running for their lives as if chased by a monolithic crazed rubber-band-ball.

Natural rubber comes from places like Indonesia and Malaysia and often arrives in the U.S. in cargo containers full of the local exotic fauna, notably lizards, despite hefty fumigation before and after shipping.

But while natural rubber is the obvious source of rubber, synthetic rubber and most rubber compounding processes start with crude oil and natural gas.

Rubber prices fluctuate with the price of crude. A major cheap filler in rubber is "carbon black," which is produced in the form of carbon dust from burning off petroleum priducts.

Oils and oil products are also used to give rubber compounds plasticity, as are vegetable oils and even animal fat, also used in extrusion. One of my cats loves to lick plastic grocery bags, probably due to the vegetable or animal products used in the molding process. True veganism requires a shift not only away from foods and leather, but also away from tires and shoe soles and many other modern products... which is practically impossible.

The whole rubber production process is less than environmentally friendly, and large multi-national rubber compounders are at war with environmental legislation, often actually petitioning their employees to loby, writing letters opposing new laws (something at one time I found personally annoying, causing me to do the exact opposite, heh.)

And, yes, recent investigations suspect large-scale price fixing. The rubber compounding industry involves a who's-who of historical villains, like Exxon and DuPont (rmember their polluting scandals?) and Bayer (the German Bayer company, pronounced "BUY-er" and recently partially renamed "Lanxess," colluded with the Nazis to test medications on Jewish people in concentration camps.)

Rubber is everywhere in modern society and the industry is a major economic force. It's taken for granted and unnoticed, but not nearly so mundane as it might seem...
posted by Shane at 8:40 AM on July 15, 2004

Oh, uh, by the way, Tlachtli is experiencing something of a revival and has had some TV coverage in the last few years. It's absolutely amazing to watch :-)
posted by Shane at 2:01 PM on July 15, 2004

Thanks for the great comments. I'd watch your cat very closely if I was you.

Where did you see a game of Tlachtli, Fox Sports Net West South 3? Do they still sacrifice the coach of the loosing team to satisfy the bloodthirst of their vengeful gods?
posted by euphorb at 10:20 PM on July 15, 2004

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