An in-depth look into the true sustainability of bamboo.
By Zoe Dromgoole
Bamboo is one of the most successful plant species on Earth. This fast-growing grass thrives in a wide range of environments, with the hardiest plants reaching their full height in less than a year. Because of its renewable nature, bamboo is being turned to more than ever in the hunt for sustainable materials.
In theory, bamboo is an ideal replacement for virgin wood timber and other finite resources. This versatile material is incredibly robust and has many applications. However, bamboo isn’t necessarily as sustainable as you might think. Below, we explore everything you need to know about bamboo and how sustainable this wonder material is.
Everything You Need to Know About Bamboo
Bamboo is an umbrella term for more than 1,400 plant species from the Poaceae family. Technically, bamboo is a type of evergreen grass. It grows easily in most climates, ranging from temperate regions to tropical zones. The most modest varieties are small and grassy, while larger species grow to incredible heights and produce stems as strong as timber.
Bamboo has been a staple crop for humans for millennia. In addition to boasting culinary uses, it’s regularly used for construction. In more recent years, more industries have turned to bamboo in the search for more sustainable raw materials.
What Makes Bamboo So Sustainable?
One of the main reasons why bamboo is seen as a sustainable crop is that it grows easily. Furthermore, farmers don’t need to invest too much time and effort into growing it. Once planted, bamboo pretty much looks after itself. Once harvested, bamboo will quickly regenerate, if root systems have been left untouched. Additionally, bamboo thrives in a variety of climates and soil types.
In ideal conditions, bamboo can grow to its full height within a single season. Even if the entire steam is harvested, the plant will regenerate to its full size within a year. This is in marked contrast to timber forests, where trees take many years, if not decades, to reach mature size.
Another big benefit of bamboo is that it is a remarkably robust material. There have been many claims about how bamboo is stronger than steel or timber. This is true. Generally speaking, bamboo is at least twice as strong as timber. In terms of tensile strength, it’s also more durable than steel. Despite being such a heavyweight in terms of strength, harvested bamboo is incredibly light. This makes it easy to transport in bulk across massive distances.
Applications of Bamboo
There’s a reason why humans have been using bamboo for thousands of years. For many animals, including humans, it’s an important food crop. It’s also a reliable construction material. In China and across the world, it’s a go-to building material. It can be used to build frame structures, erect bridges, and more.
Bamboo is quickly becoming a popular material for flooring and furniture, often proving just as durable as hardwood. You’ll also find bamboo being used to produce products on a smaller scale. A quick search through your kitchen cupboards and drawers will likely uncover a few bamboo utensils.
More recently, bamboo fibres have been exploited as a sustainable alternative to other organic materials like cotton. It’s becoming a staple material of the textile industry, while toilet paper manufacturers are using the bamboo pulp in place of virgin wood sources.
The Reality of Bamboo Products and Sustainability
Bamboo is an incredibly versatile material. As such, it’s the go-to choice for a huge variety of products. From clothing to coffee cups and furniture to flooring, bamboo products are commonplace. In its moulded form, bamboo can also be an eco-friendly and non-toxic alternative to plastic.
How sustainable a bamboo product is depends on several factors. One of the most important considerations is where the bamboo itself was sourced from. If it’s been harvested from unsustainable forests, it loses a lot of its green credentials. Furthermore, if bamboo has been transported many thousands of miles from where it was sourced, its carbon footprint can be substantial.
Processing and manufacturing steps can also take away from the sustainability of bamboo products. If a considerable amount of water and energy has been used during manufacturing, a less natural material may have been a better option. If toxic chemicals have been used, this may also negate any benefits of using bamboo as a base material.
In many cases, alternative materials are often more eco-friendly than bamboo. However, these materials aren’t necessarily as fashionable and are often overlooked. Ultimately, some bamboo products are more sustainable than others.
How Sustainable is Bamboo Fabric?
Many clothing manufacturers are turning to bamboo as an alternative to cotton. You’ve more than likely seen socks made from bamboo when browsing the underwear section online or in-store. Despite making bold claims about the benefits of natural fibres, bamboo isn’t particularly suitable for use in the garment and textile industries.
The reason for this is simple. For bamboo to be used to produce textiles, it requires considerable processing. Before a workable yarn can be produced, bamboo needs to be dissolved in chemicals. Many of these chemicals are toxic and damaging to the environment. Once the bamboo pulp has been processed to produce yarn, dyes and bleaches come into play. Ultimately, the final product is heavily removed from the organic fabric it claims to be. Even the most environmentally friendly processes rely on considerable energy input.
This isn’t to say that all bamboo clothing should be avoided. When shopping for bamboo textiles or garments, look for where the material has been sourced and manufactured. However, this information is not always readily available, making it difficult to make eco-conscious buying decisions.
Bamboo Toilet Paper – A Sustainable Alternative?
In the UK, we use around 8.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year. The pulp used to make these toilet rolls usually come from pure virgin softwood. When it comes to virgin wood consumption, it’s one of the most wasteful industries around.
If you’re looking to help the environment, you should be thinking about swapping out your triple-ply luxury rolls for a sustainable alternative. Toilet paper made from recycled pulp is one way to go. Alternatively, there’s the ever-growing bamboo toilet paper market.
At first glance, bamboo toilet paper seems like an easy switch if you want to commit to sustainability. Many products are made from replenishable bamboo sources, or produced with recycled bamboo material. However, where the product is manufactured will factor heavily into how environmentally friendly it is. If your bamboo toilet rolls are being produced in East Asia before being shipped across the world, there’s going to be a considerable carbon footprint involved.
Is Bamboo an Environmentally Friendly Material?
Many assume that harvesting bamboo puts less strain on the environment than sourcing pulp from rainforests. However, it’s worth remembering that bamboo is a plant and still plays an important ecological role. As with any plant, bamboo helps filter carbon dioxide and pump oxygen back out into the atmosphere. A typical bamboo grove produces a third more oxygen than a forest of similar size.
As such, you might think it makes more sense to harvest trees, rather than bamboo. This isn’t the case. When bamboo is harvested, its roots remain intact. From these root systems, new plants can easily regenerate, with no replanting required.
By leaving roots intact, soil layers and subterranean ecosystems are left undisturbed. This not only prevents things like soil erosion but also ensures harvested areas aren’t left exposed to flooding risk.
The Downsides of Bamboo
Bamboo has many obvious benefits. It has many applications, grows incredibly quickly, and can be harvested regularly without damaging the environment. However, there are some downsides to consider.
Because of its increasing popularity as a so-called natural fibre, more bamboo groves than ever are being planted. To make space for these groves, large areas of forest and traditional woodland are being felled. Many trees and plants found in these environments have taken hundreds of years to grow and can’t easily be replaced. Furthermore, these ecosystems are often home to endangered wildlife.
Mass planting of bamboo groves also presents another problem. As with oil palm plantations, bamboo is usually planted in isolation. This monoculture approach means that enormous areas of land are populated by a single species of plant. This instantly requires a biodiversity problem that has major implications for the ecosystem at large.
How Eco-Friendly is Bamboo?
Bamboo isn’t without sustainable credentials, but to be a truly eco-friendly material, we need to be cautious with how we grow and use it. As the appetite for bamboo products goes, so too does the instance of overfarming. This leads to more monoculture, less biodiversity, and increasing strain on established ecosystems.
The manufacturing process also creates additional problems. Once the bamboo has been harvested, any green credentials are quickly diminished using toxic chemicals and solutions. Carbon emissions created by manufacturing can also offset any benefits. Furthermore, if products are bound for faraway destinations, haulage results in additional emissions.
How Can Bamboo Be Made More Sustainable
Provided it isn’t processed, bamboo is an incredibly sustainable material. When used to produce flooring and furniture, it’s a cost-effective and eco-friendly substitute for timber and metal alloys. In theory, bamboo can also be transported without producing significant carbon emissions. Pound-for-pound, more bamboo can be shipped than heavier raw materials like timber.
However, we shouldn’t write off traditional timber entirely. In Europe and the United Kingdom, there are many sustainable forest sources. Furthermore, more industries are embracing recycled wood sources to produce products. Ultimately, we should be thinking local when choosing sustainable materials. Reclaimed and recycled materials will almost always prove the eco-friendlier option.
Final Thoughts on the Sustainability of Bamboo
If you’re looking to live a greener life, bamboo is one material you should be thinking about. Provided it’s been farmed and harvested responsibly, bamboo puts far less strain on the natural environment. However, bamboo sourced from areas where monoculture is the standard is likely doing more harm than good.
You also need to think carefully about the kind of bamboo products you’re buying. Just because you see bamboo on a label, doesn’t mean a product is automatically sustainable.
Bamboo flooring and furniture are almost always a better option than products made from unsustainable hardwood sources. However, fabric and paper products made from bamboo usually require energy-intensive manufacturing and the use of toxic chemicals.
Finally, consider where bamboo products have been produced. When you buy a pair of bamboo socks from China, think about the water and energy that’s been used to process the material itself. Next, consider the CO2 involved in getting the product to you. Sometimes, bamboo products can be a sustainable choice. However, reclaimed, or recycled materials of any kind can often be an eco-friendlier choice if you seek out local sources.
Zoe Dromgoole is the Marketing Executive at Wood Flooring Ireland and runs social media marketing. Wood Flooring Ireland sell bespoke engineered wood flooring throughout the entire country.