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Re-Inventing Rubberwood Using Technology

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Published 16th October 2019

Rubberwood plantation

The Malaysian wood furniture industry’s success owes much to the survival story of the humble rubber tree. From enjoying the spotlight as the world’s biggest resource for rubber on the international stage, to its decline to number three and the emerging growth of the oil palm industry, it appeared that the rubber tree had lost its importance in the Malaysian economy. However, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of burnt timber, the rubber tree has reasserted its value.

This full cycle of the rubber tree’s lifespan helped drive Malaysian wood furniture from a cottage industry to the multi-billion-ringgit export industry it is today. With the emergence of rubberwood as an alternative source of timber for the wood industry – and value-added products through the efforts of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) as far back as 1978 – Malaysia is now among the leading producers and exporters of wood furniture to more than 160 countries worldwide.

However, despite its successes in the timber industry, Malaysia has come under fire from environmentalists, foreign media and conservationists about its policies and practices in managing its forests, its usage of dangerous chemical preservatives to treat timber, as well as misconceptions about rubberwood itself.    

A lesson in history

While rubber trees are indigenous to South America (mainly Brazil), rubber tree plantations have existed in Malaysia for over 150 years, when the British in Malaya (Malaysia’s name before independence) cleared large tracts of rainforest to create rubber plantations. 

It began when Sir Henry Wickham smuggled a few Hevea seedlings from Brazil to the United Kingdom, which were then transferred to the Singapore Botanical Gardens – not once but twice, when the first batch failed to germinate. The nine plants that successfully germinated became the planting stock for Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. 

Since then, it has become the most extensively used timber in Southeast Asia with Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia as the biggest suppliers. Today, Malaysia exports about RM22 billion worth of timber products worldwide, of which about RM7 billion is from rubberwood furniture. 

Dr Sik and FRIM DG     HTD treated wood
Dr Sik and FRIM Director General, Dato' Dr. Abd Latiff Mohmod

Environmentally friendly

Rubber trees are not native to Malaysia’s tropical forests but have always been a plantation species and are considered environmentally friendly. As such, by promoting the use of rubberwood (Peninsula Malaysia) and other plantation species like acacia (East Malaysia), Malaysia is actually substituting the use of forest timber. Furthermore, because these are planted species, they are replanted after a recycling period for the next cycle, making them ‘eco-friendly’ as the wood is harvested from a renewable source. These are sustainably managed forests as compared to natural forest timber. 

Rubber trees are not planted for wood; they are planted for sap. The timber is a by-product and utilising it for other industries (such as furniture) makes it a sustainable alternative to tropical woods extracted from natural forests.

Stool made from HTD treated wood with kiln

Research on the ecological impact of rubber plantations has shown improvements in soil properties through enrichment of organic matter from leaf fall and plays a role as a carbon sink. It is thought that due to the extra energy required to produce latex, rubber trees are more effective than teak grown in plantation conditions. 

Dato' Dr. Abd Latif Mohmod FRIM  
"Whatever resources we have, we should protect... Malaysian forests are maintained at 55 percent, not including palm oil and rubber plantations. Of course, we care about our environment and our natural resources. That is why we are promoting less populous species for commercial use instead of premium wood from our forests. We are the saviours of our forests."- Dato' Dr. Abd Latif Mohmod, Director General, FRIM


Using technology to fight toxicity

Rubberwood is perceived as a low-value timber and is prone to disease and fungus. To make the timber useable as a raw material for the manufacturing of products, it needs to be chemically treated. The conventional method uses preservatives (boric acid) to treat timber against insects and fungi before kiln drying it for commercial use. And it’s not just Malaysia doing so, but all producers of rubberwood for commercial use need to do the same thing. 

In 2002, the European Union (EU) lobbied for stricter regulations on the usage of boric acids, which resulted in a new regulation that categorised boric acid as a dangerous substance. In 2004, understanding the possible adverse affects this regulation would have on the rubberwood trade – especially to European countries – a committee comprised of FRIM, the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC), the Malaysian Furniture Industry Council, the Malaysian Association of Bumiputra Wood and Furniture Manufacturers (PEKA), and the Malaysian Wood Industry Association, was established under the mandate of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) to find alternate solutions. Their instinct on the impeding threat was proven right when in 2009, borates as a main preservative for wood treatment were further categorised at a higher level of toxicity, requiring any products treated with boric acid to bear a label stating so.

FRIM has the biggest and oldest manmade tropical forest in the world, and as one of the world’s leading institutions in tropical forestry research, it embarked on finding a new method that would be more eco-friendly and negate the use of chemicals to treat rubberwood. A team of researchers headed by Dr. Sik Huei Shing, worked tirelessly on a breakthrough method that involved the application of High Temperature Drying (HTD) treatment on rubberwood timber as a non-toxic treatment to replace the use of borates. 

Ivorie International
Dining set made from rubberwood

Read the full story at Furnish Now August 2019 Issue

To find out more about HTD treatment, visit FRIM website