Bamboo is a fascinating material but is it really as environmentally friendly as it’s often claimed to be? Here I’m going to look at some of the issues.
Bamboo is a grass and has been measured growing as fast as one metre (39 inches) IN ONE DAY! As it grows so fast bamboo groves are easily replaced and as such, bamboo is a very renewable material. Using it therefore doesn’t contribute to deforestation. In fact it can be grown in areas (such as hillsides) where other crops cannot be grown and harvesting it can be done by cutting with no damage to the surrounding environment.
Fighting climate change
Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide per hectare than equivalent trees.
A naturally organic product
Most bamboo grows well without the use of pesticides or fertilizers and so growing it doesn’t contribute to these chemicals entering groundwater. Of course, it is also biodegradable.
Not just from Asia
It’s true that Bamboo mainly grows in Asia (China has the most, then India) but did you know that you can also find it in Argentina, Chile, Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States? Part of the impact of buying or specifying a product is from the fuels used in transportation, so local sourcing is preferable.
Stronger than steel
Bamboo grows in a hollow structure which is structurally very efficient and is used all over the world for building and scaffolding. Bamboo’s strength-to-weight ratio (and its simple tensile strength) is better than that of mild steel. In other words, it is stronger than steel. Amazing. So for a structural application, you need less, which is always better for the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that cutting through bamboo is a traditional test for Japanese Samurai swords: click to see video clip.
Better than cotton?
Bamboo can be processed into a fabric, grown organically and made into underwear, t-shirts, towels etc. I have some socks. Bamboo itself is certainly a low-impact material, but be aware that bamboo fabric is normally processed with solvents such as caustic soda and carbon disulphide which have been linked to health problems. Despite this, however, bamboo still has a much lighter environmental impact than conventional cotton or petroleum-derived polyester. It is naturally irrigated and organic and so using it instead of cotton avoids the environmentally disastrous water and pesticide use that comes with cotton production. Textiles made of bamboo have natural antibacterial, antifungal and odor resistant properties (perfect for my socks, then) and are as soft as cashmere. It actually has quite a few advantages over cotton. It also requires less dye.
Laminated bamboo products often use resin to bind the layers together and this can contain formaldehyde (classed as a carcinogen). You can find products that use alternatives, however, such as those from Plyboo which makes formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring.
Is bamboo paper so green?
Bamboo paper has been becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Paper producers are keen to state the environmental benefits of the bamboo, but there is also significant concern, for example from the ReThink Paper project, that production is leading to local people being displaced, native ecosystems being disturbed and watershed being polluted as well as unnecessary long distance transportation of paper pulp. Perhaps paper is one bamboo product to avoid.
No material or product is 100% ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ but bamboo is certainly a good one, if you’re aware of the potential issues. It’s also naturally beautiful and has thousands of applications. What other material can you say behaves better than cotton in the textiles field and is stronger than steel in construction? Watch this space as I’ll be writing more about bamboo and design in the future.