Rubber is revered as an exceedingly ecologically friendly material equipped with a rare balance of function and form that is well-suited for use as resilient flooring. Naturally slip-proof and shock-absorbent, rubber’s range of recompenses include its extreme elasticity, strength, durability, and ease of maintenance, as well as a resistance to stress, water, and heat. Combined with the appeal of an adaptable aesthetic, these characteristics collectively account for the recurrent use of rubber flooring across residential and commercial interiors. “Rubber flooring, and recycled rubber flooring in particular is a versatile product that offers great durability, sound absorption, and underfoot comfort in many different spaces,” says AJ Minite of Siena. The information that follows explores rubber flooring’s myriad possibilities.
A Brief History of Rubber
The earliest archeological evidence shows that indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica were the first to use rubber. As long ago as 1600 BC, ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures used plant and tree sap from para rubber trees to create balls made from the material. In 1839, inventor Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process to create a more resilient product. Material shortages and demand for an even more durable rubber the led to the creation of synthetic rubber made completely out of man-made ingredients. German chemist Fritz Hofmann was the first to synthesize synthetic rubber in 1909. Today, rubber that is used for flooring is typically one of three types: natural, synthetic, or recycled.
Natural, Synthetic, and Recycled Rubber
Natural rubber is formed from latex sap that is harvested from para rubber trees—including the Hevea brasiliensis and Ficus elastica trees among others. These can be found in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, as well as India, Sri Lanka, and Africa. After the latex is extracted from the para rubber tree, it is then refined into rubber that is ready for commercial processing. Para rubber trees can be replanted each season, which means that natural rubber is an easily renewable resource.
While natural rubber is made from the sap of the rubber tree, synthetic rubber is made from oil and natural gas. Mixing sulfur and gum plastic with rubber under high heat, the vulcinzation process strengthens the bonds between long molecules to make the material even more elastic with excellent rebound properties. Since it is made from a non-renewable resource, synthetic rubber is a less sustainable solution than its natural or recycled counterparts, but the material manufacturing process itself is low impact and energy efficient. In spite of the finite resources consumed in its production, the primary appeal of synthetic rubber is its ability to create long-lasting flooring applications. Thus, the longer lifespan of the material helps to offset the use of non-renewable resources.
Helping to eliminate waste by reusing materials, recycled rubber floors offer many sustainable and environmentally friendly advantages. “Recycled rubber floors are one of the purest examples of a post-consumer recycled product,” says Minite. “They use predominantly reground car and truck tires as a base material.” The manufacturing process requires less energy and cost when compared to the creation of many other resilient floors. Recycled rubber is also commonly considered to be stronger and more durable than natural rubber flooring.
Embraced for its practical appeal that combines efficacy with aesthetics, rubber flooring is offered in a rich array of colors, patterns, and textures. “Originally only used for gyms and ice-skating arenas, manufacturers began to implement color and created a very sustainable product that could be used in other commercial areas as well for aesthetics along with the product’s great functionality and sustainability,” says Minite. Though designs were once limited by polished black or slate gray colorways, contemporary interiors can take advantage of the material’s ability to be customized in a variety of hues and textures. “While the most sustainable portion of the product is the reground tires, which appear as a matte black visual, the addition of pure EPDM rubber allows for designers to add as much color as they want,” adds Minite. “Rubber is also versatile in the way it can be cut and shaped allowing for unique patterns or logo inlays via waterjet cutting at the factory.”
Easy to maintain and durable enough to perform for decades, rubber’s customizable characteristics can be adapted to suit the design demands and functionality of many types of spaces, from healthcare to workplace. “With the ability to do so many custom colors as well as creating logos, recycled rubber flooring is still the most popular option for gyms as well as school and university locker rooms and athletic facilities,” says Minite. “For healthcare projects, it is also a great option for physical therapy areas as well as stress relief anywhere a healthcare professional needs to be standing for long periods of time. In commercial office spaces, the product can be used just about anywhere but is most common in kitchen/pantry areas or back of house areas such as storage or printer rooms.” Accommodating an array of interior needs, rubber flooring exhibits strength, resilience, and aesthetic advantages along with the appeal of a cushioned feel underfoot.