Archive for Thursday, March 30, 2006

Where the rubber meets the workload

March 30, 2006

Rubber materials have become a very essential part of our lives in such a way that we have taken them for granted. If you were to ask most people where the rubber material comes from, many would draw a blank. It's like the joke that's heard often, "Where does milk come from?"

"The grocery store of course."

When I stop to consider the wonders of all the products that are made from rubber, it invariably takes me back to my childhood. One of the most fascinating times of my life was when I went to visit my cousins who lived in a rubber plantation. I had the unique opportunity to see how this amazing product was cultivated and processed and being used to make the many different kinds of rubber products we have today.

Allow me as I reminisce my childhood and bring you an insight to one of nature's most amazing products.

Rubber was the biggest export of Malaysia in the early part of this decade and one of the reason's the country was colonized by the British. It is also the main reason many people from India were brought to the country. Just as the Chinese were brought to work in the tin mines, Indians were the laborers that sustained the rubber industry. My grandparents were part of this group who came to make a better living and work in the rubber plantations.

The rubber plantations itself are a fascinating sight to behold. The trees are about 20 feet tall and are planted in immaculate rows. This is to enable the workers to "tap" rubber in an efficient manner.

I have very fond memories of these rubber plantations. Many of my adventures as a kid were realized in the depths of that "jungle." That was where I was chased by a king cobra, hid from a ravenous wild boar, and fished in the ponds using the latex from the tree -- not to mention some of the other crazy things my cousins and I did.

We had a blast in the plantation; we watched nature up close and also learned to be resourceful in many ways. The close bond I have with my cousins was born in the midst of that rubber plantation.

Rubber in its natural form is liquid, white in color and odorless. It's extracted from the tree by shaving off a layer of the tree bark using a sickle that is about a quarter-inch wide. The bark is peeled in a downward spiral for about three feet and the liquid rubber is collected in a small clay bowl and the end of the cut.

The workers in the plantation leave at the crack of dawn to start this process and then later in the morning, return to collect the liquid that is in the clay bowls. They empty that into a large container, with many of containers being carried on the backs of the workers.

Each tree yields about three-quarters of a bowl. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of trees to produce large amounts so it can be sold commercially.

By afternoon, most of the workers arrive at the plant and empty the liquid into a big square tub that is about the size of a pool table. There are several of these and each is filled to about half full.

The liquid is then purified by using some chemicals and allowed to gel. About a couple of hours later, water is added to the already gelled liquid. Once the texture is deemed appropriate, it is then cut into large rectangle pieces about an inch thick. These pieces are then run through metal ringers to flatten them and also squeeze any water or liquid in them. By now, these pieces look like white floor mats.

The final phase of processing the rubber is to hang it in a smoke-filled warehouse for a week. The stench in that building is akin to dried fish. After a week in the smoke house, the rubber sheets -- by now brown in color -- are bundled and shipped off as raw material. These are used to make many of the products we have today.

So, next time you use something made of rubber, remember the hard work of the people like my grandparents who worked in the plantations and not the store you got the item from.

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