Bamboo has experienced a big boom over the past years. Declared as one of the green materials, we want to take a closer look at how sustainable and eco-friendly it really is.
Yes, bamboo can be a sustainable and eco-friendly resource. However, the processed or treated product in the end is the most concerning part. Some bamboo products are really not eco-friendly at all but others definitely are.
Bamboo is a type of grass and itself it is indeed eco-friendly and sustainable if it grows in its natural environment. Some species have an invasive behavior, especially to non-native areas. The way it is processed into fabrics and potentially flooring is a huge concern of environmentalists, though. On the other hand, there are bamboo products that are eco-friendly after all.
10 reasons why bamboo is a sustainable resource
1. This grass is the fastest growing plant on the planet. It can grow up to 3 feet (1 m) in one day, which is the main reason why it’s so sustainable.
2. Unlike trees, it is cut for processing and it can regrow afterwards. It takes only 3 to 5 years until it is grown to its mature size.
3. Bamboo releases around 30% more oxygen than other plants because it also absorbs 5x more carbon dioxide than similar plants. This is one big reason why it is considered sustainable.
4. The way bamboo grows with an underground root system helps rebuild eroded soil. Scientists found out that it keeps river beds from eroding. However, it takes some time to see the whole effect. Bamboo has to grow out first in order to stop erosion.
5. Compared to cotton or other plants, it requires far less water. Only young bamboo needs frequent water to start growing upwards. Mature bamboo is very drought-resistant although it naturally grows in rainforests. It is actually pretty sensitive towards wet or soaked soil.
6. This grass doesn’t need any pesticides because it is naturally pest resistant. This is a big advantage to cotton, which needs a lot of environmentally harmful insecticides.
7. In its original form, bamboo is compostable. Depending on the processing, it could still go into your composter. For example, if you decide for a 100% organic bamboo toothbrush or if you pull out the bristles, you can compost it.
8. Bamboo is strong. In fact, bamboo flooring has a high rank on the Janka Hardness Scale.
9. It is naturally rot-resistant, antibacterial, and antifungal, which makes it a great material for kitchenware, toothbrushes, and outdoor uses. However, treating and maintaining will improve the lifespan drastically compared to untreated bamboo products or constructions.
10. Bamboo is a cheap resource. As it grows quick without pesticides needed and because it provides a lot of material, bamboo is a relatively low-cost material.
Is bamboo good for the environment?
The plant itself – if grown in its original environment – is good because it has non-harmful features. It doesn’t need anything else than water and sun to grow. It actually cleans our air more than trees or other plants. So, yes, bamboo plants are good for our environment.
However, if it is grown in the U.S. or Europe, it can be invasive to the plants that are growing there. Especially running bamboo has a wide-spreading behavior that can take over fields and forests within a few years. Any bamboo can spread widely if not taken care of properly. It is a high maintenance task because it still falls under the grass family. As you would mow your lawn, you have to regularly take care of bamboo.
There is some controversy about bamboo, though. Let’s dive into this part now!
What is not so sustainable or eco-friendly about bamboo?
Like I said above, bamboo is an invasive plant in many areas in the U.S. and Europe. Other reasons why bamboo is not considered sustainable go into the economic area and the processing of bamboo.
From an economical perspective, we have to take the shipping into consideration. Bamboo is mainly harvested and processed in China, which means it has to be shipped to the U.S. and Europe. We all know that shipping from other continents is not exactly eco-friendly. Oil gets spilled, kerosene gets burned in air transportation, so it plays its part in trashing up the world and global warming. As said above, we shouldn’t grow bamboo in non-native areas either. So, we should always import it. Keep in mind that a lot of non-bamboo products have a worse production chain. Harvested or partially manufactured in the U.S. or Europe, then sent to Asia for processing or further manufacturing, and shipped back for selling. So, in the end, many of our daily used products aren’t really eco-friendly.
In addition, China and other countries where bamboo is grown and processed, have not yet established restrictions for bamboo plantations and the chemical treatment of bamboo products. This simply means that bamboo plantations take over spaces from other habitats. And as we all know, false advertising and misleading conditions (environmental impact, work conditions, etc.) are not uncommon or mostly unknown in the latter case.
On top of this, we cannot expect from a sturdy grass to have the same features as our so loved cotton fabrics or hardwood floors. Bamboo has to be treated in order to get the same benefits as other materials (unless it is something like cutlery, toothbrushes, straws, and chopsticks). The chemical treatment of bamboo is sometimes an open-loop process that drains toxic waste into nature. Some bamboo flooring contains VOCs that are unhealthy. These things cannot be neglected but you can choose eco-friendly products that have certifications (FSC and so on). I will go into detail on this later.
Before I go into more details about how bamboo is processed, I want to give you a little insight into what things/products are made of bamboo.
What is bamboo used for?
There is a huge variety of bamboo products out there. I believe bamboo toothbrushes, straws, fabrics, and chopsticks are the most popular ones right now. Now there are also pillows, mattresses, mattress toppers, diverse kitchenware, and even socks.
Bamboo is also used for construction work and furniture because it is very strong. Outdoor bamboo furniture, like lounge chairs and tiki bars, are an inexpensive way to provide a tropical ambiance. Bamboo flooring is up-and-coming, as well. It is just as sturdy as hardwood but it is way lighter.
How is bamboo processed or treated?
Like I said above, bamboo is often treated or processed in order to get the material for certain products. So, let’s look at different end products and their treatment.
How is bamboo flooring made?
After harvesting bamboo canes, the outer skin will be removed. Then the stems are cut into strings (lengthwise). There are going to be thinner pieces left over because of the round shape of the bamboo canes. These will be used later as well. These go through a boiling process in order to get rid of starches/sugars, grime, and insects (if there are any). This will prevent a termite infestation or other insect invasions. In addition, this step also prevents expansions from humidity. Liquids used for this boiling process are hydrogen peroxide, lime acid, or boric acid, which are all not harmful in theory.
From the water immersion, the bamboo strips can be carbonized before the drying process. This would give the bamboo flooring a darker color. This isn’t a mandatory step like the next one though. The kiln-drying process includes quality control. The pieces that pass are going to be kiln-dried. It creates a hotter environment so that the water evaporates faster.
The dried strips are then glued together in order to get the wooden flooring appearance. There are 3 different styles:
- Horizontal planks: Bamboo strips are layered horizontally with the wide side facing up.
- Vertical planks: Bamboo strips are glued together vertically in order to get the necessary width and thickness.
- Strand-woven planks: The smaller bamboo strips (the leftover cuts) are pulled apart into strands. These will be glued together under high pressure.
The gluing is the most important factor of deciding whether or not bamboo flooring is eco-friendly. Certified manufacturers use glue that doesn’t contain formaldehyde. So, you should be very careful in picking the right product.
After the planks are glued and milled, they get stained in order to have a long-lasting product that can deal with every day use.
In the end, there are 2-3 added steps compared to manufactured wood floors (not solid wood floors). Hence, it is a bit more labor intensive and uses more electricity. Then again, you are not supporting the felling of precious trees that needed decades to grow.
How is bamboo processed into fabrics?
When you see cotton or animal wool, it is easy to imagine fabrics. If you look at these hard bamboo culms, you have to know that making a soft fabric needs to go long ways.
Bamboo is crashed into pieces to get tiny bits. These are then heavily treated with chemicals in order to get a normal thread. The chemical process for bamboo fabrics can vary immensely. We covered this topic in a different article in more detail, so I will make it short here.
There are open-loop and closed-loop processes for different bamboo fabrics. Rayon made from bamboo is a bad choice because it uses toxic chemicals that eventually are released to air and water. The production of rayon has a heavy impact of our planet’s health. Lyocell, on the other side, is a closed-loop system that recycles the chemicals or re-purposes them in different ways. There are no toxic byproducts. So, if you want to choose bamboo fabric for any apparel or linens, go for Lyocell.
However, the way from bamboo to fabric is quite long and intense. You have to outweigh the pro and cons yourself and compare it to other textiles. Non-organic Cotton, for example, needs a lot of pesticides in the growing phase. It may seem to grow faster but also doesn’t give as much material as a fully grown bamboo cane. Then it needs to be sorted, combed, threaded and so on. In the end, it will be bleached or dyed.
Hemp is supposed to be a good option if you are looking for a really eco-friendly and sustainable textile. You still have to know from whom you are buying from, though.
What are the indicators for sustainable and eco-friendly bamboo products?
There are sooooo many green and fair labels nowadays that it is hard to figure out if they are real or not.
Some good indicators of a green product are: FSC, Oeko-Tex, Global Organic Textile Standard, Green America Seal, NAHB Green, NSF…