A chat with Jeff Martin, Founder of Yulex, the plant-based neoprene pioneer
Jeff Martin, a leader in the forefront of sustainable textiles and rubber alternative, talked with us about the origins of Yulex, the material used to make our lovely ocean wear, and how the corporation is putting sustainability at the forefront of their objectives.
Tell me how the company came about and the story behind you joining Yulex in the beginning.
I happened to be working for a medical device company where I was in charge of sales, marketing and business development. Part of my role was to find new technologies or products to expand our outreach. I was reading an article about a scientist from the US Department of Agriculture who’d been working with an alternative source of natural rubber that came from a plant which was indigenous to Mexico called Guayule. It could be grown in arid lands and produced as much high-quality rubber per hectare or acre as traditional rubber crops.
What was interesting about it was that people that had Type 1 latex allergies to tropical rubber – the source of essentially all rubber on the planet – did not have any cross-reactivity to the rubber produced from Guayule. That was really the ideation and start of Yulex. Although it was in very early stages, and there was no commercial crop of guayule to produce the rubber, I saw it as a potential future for a new industry.
I put together a business plan and took it back to my company, and for various and sundry reasons they chose not to go forward with it – so I made the decision to leave and pursue it myself with a colleague. We founded Yulex Corporation together and licensed the technology from the US Department of Agriculture. Then with an envelope full of seeds and a copy that described how to extract the rubber from the plant, we set off to start this new industry.
Could you explain the transition between the discovery of the guayule plant and what Yulex is now?
We were out to build a new industry. Over several years there was a wild crop growing in Mexico, we brought the crop to the United States and we learned how to really treat it as a commercial crop. We also employed new technology that was non-GMO, called molecular breeding, which allows you to ‘look under the hood’ of the plant and understand its genetics and make smart decisions on breeding.
We ended up planting thousands of acres of the crop in the southwestern United States, predominantly in Arizona. Taking the pattern from the US Department of Agriculture, we started out with a small extraction mechanism that fitted on our desk and eventually moved it into a garage. Eventually, we learned how to extract and purify the rubber that comes from Guayule. You can’t tap it from a tree like maple syrup, it’s actually integrated into the bark of the plant and you have to go through a destructive harvest to extract all the rubber and then purify and clean it to make it useable.
We started experimenting with natural rubber latex from tropical sources and found out that we could substantially improve the performance and safety of the material. We then took the concept to Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia, and we agreed that if we could use this purified rubber but obtain it only from sustainable sourcing. We would then export our technology on these plantations, and produce Yulex pure rubber for the marketplace.
We built a pilot plant to produce Guayule natural rubber and produced about 500 metric tonnes a year, which sounds like a lot, but for the rubber industry is not even a drop in the bucket. However, with that, we were able to commercialise and Patagonia’s investment from a development standpoint, we introduced the guayule natural rubber to the market.
Following the launch of our products, in order for us to be more competitive, we needed to build a considerably larger rubber manufacturing facility. Unfortunately, we were not able to raise the money to take it to the next stage of development. It was too high risk as companies like Patagonia don’t generally invest in those type of manufacturing assets and were not willing to put the money up.
We ended up deciding to license the technology for guayule to one of the largest chemical companies based in Italy, and a variety of other global companies as well who are all presently working with the technology.
So that’s what has lead you to using the Hevea tree. From what I recall you have plantations in Guatemala?
We currently have plantations in Guatemala and Sri Lanka with a big part of our objective to change practices in the rubber industry globally and to show them that if they work in a sustainable fashion, they create better and safer products. Even though the tire companies may not be willing to pay for those products, there are hundreds of consumer and medical product companies that do want a better standard and will pay for this type of material.
That is our objective, and by working very closely with consumer product companies and NGO’s, we hope to accomplish this. I spoke at a conference in March, sponsored by Mighty Earth and The Rainforest Alliance, on sustainable rubber production in Thailand. Companies are bought in to be shown what sustainable practices look like versus unsustainable practices. Information is then provided so they can put together natural rubber procurement policies for their own corporations to really start a change in their agricultural process.
I bet you’ve got some beautiful upward trajectories of the demand for sustainable rubber across many different industries?
That’s correct – there is. Consumers are starting to become aware and now we have many more plantations that want to jump on the bandwagon. Rubber for a hundred years has been a very hard driven commodity industry. If farmers put the extra time, effort and labour into growing crops differently, costing them more to do so, they’ve got to be assured that there are customers in the supply chain that will pay them for the additional costs. As they see demand increasing it brings confidence, and a rising tide raises all boats so we’re hoping to really change the industry.
Have you seen any changes in the communities surrounding these plantations that you would like to see fixed or ways in which you’d like to see companies or people come together to help the communities that are helping to bring us this amazing resource?
I know the companies and families very well that run and own the plantations that I even sent my daughter down to Guatemala last summer to work on one of the rubber plantations. It was full emersion. In both the locations, they do absolutely wonderful things that are well documented for the entire community. I have visited excellent schools and classrooms they’re building with computer labs in all the classrooms and great teachers. A lot of the students are required to mind livestock for their families, so the schools have created areas where they can bring their livestock to be looked after whilst in class. They are also providing increased health and dental care. I was able to visit the nutritional centre where they would not only provide guidance to mothers on a proper diet but would also keep records of all the children that work in the plantations, measuring their height and weight etc.
They are helping individuals to develop skills that allow them to move past the labour-intensive plantation work, and into the business community through the help of local family-run businesses. Lastly, some of the plantations actually provide retirement for people that spend their entire career on the plantation. They stop getting paid but have access to the same housing and medical care that they had earlier on.
We’re dealing with the 5% of the rubber industry that are doing things the right way, and we’re trying to show the world a better way to do it. That’s what our and Patagonia’s vision is, and many of the companies that are joining us on this journey have the same type of vision. This is the way things always should have been done.
You’ve previously said geoprene is not an environmentally sound improvement on neoprene, let alone an improvement on Yulex pure natural rubber. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
We have got to stop relying on non-renewable resources to make materials and fuel.
Neoprene, as with all synthetic polymers and plastics, is taking carbon out of the earth, drilling for it or mining it, and then putting it in our atmosphere. Every time you take oil out of the ground, it ends up in our atmosphere. All of these materials are hydrocarbons and with carbon in the form of CO2 polluting our atmosphere, this has been responsible for global warming and climate change. So first and foremost, we’ve got to stop doing that.
Geoprene is actually a trademark name developed by a wetsuit company after buying the material from a Japanese company. The whole idea of geoprene is classic greenwashing. It’s actually more energy intensive to produce materials from limestone and chlorinated rubber, than from petroleum. It uses more energy, it’s not renewable and it’s not environmentally friendly in any way, shape or form. The whole idea is when you’re dealing with plants to produce fuel or material, a plant has the ability to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere like guayule, not to produce more carbon. That’s how we want to produce raw materials, with plants or trees that are renewable. When we use plants, they become our factories, they produce polymers and they lessen the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, not add to it. That’s the bottom line.
What’s next for you coming up into this year?
There is a need in the marketplace for customers to find manufacturers that are more in tune in working with sustainable materials as opposed to synthetic materials. So, we see ourselves becoming more involved in 2019 and into 2020 by not only providing the raw material but actually being able to provide finished materials to our customers that want our produced products.
We love what we’re doing. It’s a small area but we try and make the most positive impact we can in what we know, which is rubber. So that’s what we do, and that’s how we give back.