One of the most frequent of the Latex FAQ: what is latex?
Latex is rubber the original natural, sustainable, and renewable real-world rubber produced without synthetic alteration or chemical treatment. Latex is naturally secreted by certain mature plant species and can be harvested from the same specimens on a regular basis without harming the living plant.
Why Does It Matter?
First popularized in the 1800s, latex has been prized for two centuries by professionals in industries as diverse as automotive, industrial, and medical fields. Today, with growing health concerns and the rising awareness of "green" social and environmental accountability, latex is growing in popularity as a sustainable, renewable resource and a natural plant-based alternative free of industrial chemicals.
Today, latex is used in a vast array of personal and professional products, from surgeon's gloves to mattresses. The substance's physical properties of tear resistance, abrasion resistance, resilience, and flexibility keep natural latex in high demand century after century.
The vast majority of the world's latex is produced thanks to a single species: Hevea brasiliensis, commonly known as the Rubber Tree. Latex is secreted each day in small amounts by the Hevea species, among others, and is thought to be a natural evolutionary adaptation that protects the tree from insect predation.
Latex is a mixture of organic compounds produced in particular specialized plant cells called lacticifers, which are modified phloem cells. The chemical composition of latex may actually vary slightly from one plant to the next, but the method of production in each specimen of Hevea brasiliensis is essentially the same.
According to the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno, today's commercial Hevea lines were produced over hundreds of years of seed saving and specialized breeding programs. Today, a single highly productive Hevea brasiliensis tree has a life cycle for producing latex of about 28 years.
Rubber trees are typically planted in large latex collection operations, where trees are tapped once they reach maturity at about five to eight years of age, according to Purdue University. Tappers then collect latex from each tree as it drips down a metal spout into collection cups. A single tapper can process 200 to 300 trees in a three-hour period.
Two different types of latex process can be used to create comfortable, stable sleep surfaces free of industrial chemicals: the Dunlop process and the Talalay process. Both procedures inject liquid into a mold and allow it to set in layers. The older, time-tested Dunlop method stops there. The more innovative Talalay process adds two space-age steps to make your mattress softer and lusher, but a little less firm and a little less durable. Neither process is superior to the other; each produces a mattress with distinctive features, so you can find the mattress that perfectly suits your needs.
First discovered in South America by a French expedition, Hevea brasiliensis specimens were exported in large quantities to Asia for use on large rubber plantations. Again according to Purdue University, major producers of latex today are "Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Indochina (Thailand is third largest), and Sri Lanka, with smaller quantities from Sarawak, India, Burma, and Equatorial Africa, [as well as] the rain-forests of tropical South America."
Disease susceptibility has plagued Hevea brasiliensis in its native Brazilian habitat. However, the strains removed to Asia two centuries ago were free of these localized disease populations and have thrived in tropical Asian climates.
The history of rubber-making is intimately entangled with colonialism and the loss of indigenous ways of life, as rubber plantations took the place of traditional farming methods and means of making a living. Today, however, sustainable rubber estates are often owned and run by local indigenous communities who seek to better their circumstances through fair trade and entrepreneurship.
Make Your Latex Count
Never be afraid to ask how the latex for your mattress was produced and purchased. When you know your latex was manufactured by hand using methods designed to sustain both the environment and the people who work the land, you'll find you really sleep better at night.
Pros Latex Is:
- Sustainable harvest doesn't damage the plants;
- Environmentally friendly collection is done by hand in most parts of the world, without the daily use of heavy equipment and petroleum-based fuels to run harvesters; and
- Healthy latex can be free of industrial chemicals and even be organic when properly produced.
Cons Latex Is:
- Historically related to colonialism and even slavery though today most rubber estates are run by small local organizations and many espouse fair trade practices; and
- Sometimes synthesized in a laboratory or altered with industrial chemicals ask questions to be sure that the latex you use is natural, sustainably harvested "real" latex.