MALAYSIA has a lot of natural rubber latex, though it is no longer the biggest source of the commodity since the 1990s. Thailand and Indonesia have emerged as the world’s top two producers. Likewise it has a goodly supply of nitrile latex – the former is a highly versatile and increasingly sought-after synthetic cousin – in which the country has recently acquired leadership in production capacity. That’s an enviable platform for a nation to
develop and establish itself as the world’s biggest supplier of rubber gloves – and to continue to be so for
some time. Malaysia posted its eighth straight year of record rubber gloves exports in 2010.
Then again, that sea of latex – of the natural variety, at least – spans region wide, which is to say Malaysia
fully earns the credit for having recognised and tapped the commodity’s potential with such huge success.
It is estimated that 1.3 to 1.4 million tonnes of liquid latex, worth US$3.7 billion, go into the global non-tyre marketplace every year. For the last 15 years, the country has been the top source of rubber gloves,
exporting about 100 billion pieces of the products to meet two-thirds of global demand – which has shown
no sign of slowing down and continues to grow at an annual rate of 8-12%.
A recent report from Bank Islam Malaysia also states that Malaysian rubber glove exports could reach US$1.33 billion this year, supported by a strong growth in global demand and liberalisation of the healthcare industry in emerging markets like China and India.
Companies in the limelight
Malaysia’s top producer Top Glove, for one, started out in 1991 with only one factory and three production
lines. Today, it is the world’s largest rubber glove manufacturer, with 20 factories (four of which are in
Thailand and two in China) and 379 production lines.
The company has a total capacity of 33.75 billion pieces of gloves/year, sells to 180 countries worldwide and
has a 23% share of the global market.
Top Glove is building four more plants costing about RM160 million. This will add 80 production lines to
raise the company’s capacity by 7.5 billion pieces to 41.25 billion pieces/year. The target is to corner 30% of
the world market by next year when the plants are fully commissioned. Top Glove makes 13 types of gloves –
latex (powdered), latex (powder-free), vinyl and nitrile – designed to meet a whole range of requirements.
Another Malaysian producer Latexx Partners , meanwhile, will invest RM70 million to undertake the
final phase of its expansion exercise to raise its annual production capacity to 12 billion pieces in two years,
from the present 9 billion pieces. The company is adding on another facility to the existing six it already
owns in Taiping, Perak. It expects to expand its market share in Europe, Asia Pacific and South America, with
the US market still accounting as its single biggest export earner, accounting for 50% of its output.
In nitrile glove making, Hartalega Holdings will become the world’s number one when its fifth plant in
Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, is completed next March.Malaysia’s biggest producer of synthetic rubber gloves,
the company said the new factory’s ten high-capacity production lines will raise the output to 9.5 billion
pieces of gloves/year from 7.6 billion now.
According to Executive Chairman Kuan Kam Hon, with the new capacity, Hartalega – which currently
controls 23% of the US market for nitrile rubber gloves – expects to take the pole position from US healthcare
products group Kimberly-Clark in this market segment.
Hartalega has been producing latex gloves since 1988 and exports 100% of its output to 23 countries, of which 83% is used by the healthcare industry.
Feedstock supply assured
And it must be of some measure of comfort operationally for Hartalega, and other Malaysian companies making nitrile gloves, to know that feedstock is one question they don’t have to delve too deeply into.
For this, they have Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd (KLK) to thank. Since April this year, the Ipoh-based planter has become the world’s biggest synthetic latex producer via its 19% owned British subsidiary Yule Catto.
“The demand for nitrile latex has been on the uptrend in the last five years. We foresee there is a need for an additional 30,000 tonnes every year as more glove makers switch to nitrile,” Synthomer Asia’s
Managing Director Brendan Catlow was reported saying. Synthomer operates a 130,000-tonne/year nitrile plant in Kluang, Johor. Its polymers business is wholly-owned by Yule Catto.
“The demand for nitrile latex has been on the uptrend in the last five years. We foresee there is a need for an additional 30,000 tonnes every year as more glove makers switch to nitrile,” Synthomer Asia’s Managing Director Brendan Catlow was reported saying. Synthomer operates a 130,000-tonne/year nitrile plant in Kluang, Johor. Its polymers business is wholly-owned by Yule Catto.
Yule Catto, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, emerged as the world’s biggest nitrile latex producer after completing its purchase of Germany’s PolymerLatex Group in March. PolymerLatex owns a
100,000-tonne/year nitrile latex plant in Pasir Gudang, Johor. “As an enlarged group, Yule Catto now supplies 40% of the world’s needs for nitrile latex,” Catlow said at a press conference. World demand for nitrile latex is currently about 550,000 tonnes/year. Among the other major producers of the commodity are BASF, Dow Chemical, DSM and Lanxess.
Switch to nitrile imminent
A key challenge faced by makers of rubber goods worldwide has been the escalating cost of raw materials, especially natural and synthetic rubbers – the market for which is significantly influenced by the global oil price, outlook for major economic sectors (principally the automotive industry) and factors like the rainy monsoon season and wintering of rubber trees. In addition, natural latex is susceptible to speculative trading. On the other hand, while nitrile latex is also prone to price fluctuations, the factors here are generally related
to the question of factory production capacity and therefore more manageable.
Consequently, there has been a steady shift of late in Malaysian rubber gloves production capacity to the nitrile variety. For example, Top Glove intends to step up nitrile glove production to half of its total
installed capacity of 30 billion pieces. Currently, nitrile gloves account for only 20% of the company’s total gloves output.
“Natural latex takes up 64% of our production cost. The volatile swings in latex prices have had an impact
on our profits. To diversify our risks, we’ve started to switch some of our lines to make nitrile gloves,” said
Top Glove Chairman Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai in April.
Allergy crisis pushes nitrile forward
Another big push factor for the nitrile switch is of course the stepped-up efforts to outlaw medical gloves
made of natural rubber or powdered with cornstarch in the US. Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has
submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently in April, claiming that it is renewing
its call for a ban on powdered medical gloves, and expanding that to all natural rubber latex medical
gloves because of a continuing allergy crisis.
Public Citizen, which sought a similar ban in 1998, said in the petition: “The dangers posed by powdered
surgical and patient examination gloves have been widely recognised throughout the medical profession
and the world for many years and are indisputable.”
Airborne powder from medical gloves can cause serious allergic reactions in sensitised workers even
if they themselves aren’t wearing those gloves, the group said. Even powder-free latex gloves pose serious
threats to allergic workers and patients, according to the petition. FDA’s own database shows the death of
one surgical patient and severe reactions from nine healthcare workers caused by powder-free gloves since
2005, it said.
FDA rejected the original Public Citizen petition in July 1999. The agency argued that a ban on powdered
gloves would not address exposures to latex gloves with high levels of proteins and might compromise the
availability of high-quality medical gloves. Instead, FDA proposed labelling latex gloves with warnings
about possible allergic reactions. However, the petition said Germany banned powdered latex gloves in 1998
and by 2002 the number of suspected cases of latex allergy in that country dropped 80%.
Since latex allergies surfaced as a problem in the late 1980s, virtually every maker of protective gloves
has worked to address it through removing proteins from latex, not powdering gloves or using alternative
materials. Ansell Healthcare, for instance, said it has spent years working to make substantial reductions
in the amount of proteins in its natural rubber latex gloves. And Malaysian producers have likewise made
available low-protein and powder-free gloves.
Nitrile versus vinyl
But US-based Showa-Best Gloves believes nitrile gloves are the best solution to allergy problems. Its technical production specialist, Donald F. Groce, said, “Powder-free latex can still cause anaphylactic shock. Low-protein latex would cut down on allergic reactions, but not eliminate them.” According to
him, many hospitals have switched to vinyl gloves, which are cheaper than latex or nitrile and don’t cause allergic reactions.
However, vinyl doesn’t offer the barrier protection from blood-borne pathogens that nitrile does. Still , in terms of cost, vinyl gloves are said to be an increasingly popular option in disposable gloves. In light
of technological advances in recent years, today’s vinyl examination gloves are suitable for most work situations, if not yet all that natural latex and nitrile gloves are designed for.
Alternative green technology
An alternative approach to the challenge is to “engineer” an alternative type of natural latex that has reduced amounts of antigenic proteins. Another US company Vystar believes its Vytex is the solution, with the added advantage that it is also a green technology and therefore more sustainable,
since it takes less water and energy to produce.
The Vytex natural rubber latex is a multi-patented, all-natural, raw material that contains significantly reduced levels of antigenic proteins found in natural rubber latex and can be used in over 40,000 products. Vystar is working with manufacturers across a broad range of consumer and medical products to bring its Vytex to market in adhesives, balloons, surgical and exam gloves, other medical devices and natural rubber latex foam mattresses, pillows and sponges.
Vytex latex may cost more but since it eliminates the need for a glove manufacturer to perform two or three chlorine bleaches and warm water rinses to reduce the proteins to an acceptable level, it is cost-effective in the long run, the company says, and the environment benefits, too. (PRA)