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Home GreeniacsArticles Consumer Products Bamboo Use
Written by William Quinn
Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Bamboo Use
Bamboo is one of those plants that people seem to either love or hate. There are over 1,400
species of the grass around the world900 species are tropical while 500 seek temperate
climates. Over 80% of the worlds bamboo is located in Asia, with another 10% in both Africa
and the Americas. Bamboos claim to fame is definitely its speed of growth and persistence,
as it is recognized as the worlds fastest growing plant. Under optimal conditions, the plant
can grow at an astounding three feet per day, and certain species may grow up to 150 feet
tall. Due to its abundance and hardiness, people utilize bamboo in an incredible number of
ways. Some hail it as a miracle plant for its beneficial uses in food, construction,
ecological habitats, medicine, and textiles. However, one persons panacea is anothers
plight, and bamboo is recognized as an invasive species through much of North
America. Once bamboo is planted, it is incredibly difficult to eradicate, so be forewarned if
you plan to make a border around your property. Lets look at bamboos common uses, hype
vs. fact, and its potential role in combating climate change .
Bamboo Cultivation: Bamboo is astounding because of its ability to grow very quickly
with little water and its ability to thrive without the use of herbicides or pesticides. It also
promotes economic development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: it helps support the
livelihoods of more than 1.5 billion people, [and] generates more than five billion dollars in
annual trade. Groups are presently working on a certification system to ensure that bamboo
comes from a sustainable plantation, i.e. one which allows other species to thrive. Bamboo
can grow out of control quickly and if growers are not careful, bamboo has the potential to
become a large monoculture crop taking up vast tracts of land. This form of agriculture is
known to be one of the largest destroyers of biodiversity, which is why a sustainable
certification process is important.
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82 percent of greenhouse gas
emissions in the U.S. come from
burning fossil fuels.
Bamboos Use in Construction: Bamboo is remarkably strong and light, especially
when compared to other commonly used building materials such as steel. As a result, it is
popularly used in home construction, fences, fishing poles, cutting boards, boats, water
wheels, weaponry, and bridges. It even holds up in earthquakes, in Limon, Costa Rica, only
bamboo housesstood after their violent earthquake in 1992. Due to its strength, light
weight, and flexibility, bamboo structures dance in earthquakes. It has also become
increasingly popular for flooring. Since bamboo is ready to harvest in 5-6 years and
immediately starts growing back after it is cut down, there are obvious advantages to this
plant over conventional trees. Bamboo can also be very hard, depending on the species and
age, so flooring made from the bamboo plant does not scratch easily. If immature bamboo is
used, it can warp or scratch more easily, so like all purchases, it is important to know where
your bamboo is coming from and purchase only from a reputable vendor.
The other downside of bamboo is shipping, commonly referred to as the products carbon
footprint. If you are building with wood harvested from local trees, this may be preferable to
building with bamboo, which is most likely shipped across the ocean. Carbon dioxide (CO2)
emissions from the shipping industry are a rising concern, generating twice as many CO2
emissions as airlines. This is definitely a factor to consider when evaluating which floor is
greenest. If possible, look for companies that offset their shipping emissions.
Bamboo-Based Textiles: For the most part, I am very impressed with bamboo. Other
than being an invasive species in North America, bamboo seems like a very sustainable,
versatile plant with loads of industrial applications. However, I cannot give bamboo an A+
rating as it is used in clothing and textiles. If you have ever owned bamboo clothing, you
know how comfortable it is. Not only is it comfortable, but manufactures claim that the clothing
maintains natural antibacterial and antifungal properties, which is what assists the plant in
fighting off disease and insects. So, bamboo clothing is marketed as sustainable,
comfortable, odor absorbing, breathable, and biodegradable, aka, super fabric! ; So what is
the downside you ask? Well many times the manufacturers are lying. The Federal Trade
Commission (FTC) released a report two years ago highlighting how most bamboo clothing
only contains a small percentage of bamboo, or the bamboo is used to create rayon which is
a manufactured semi-synthetic fiber made from cellulose. ; Worse yet, rayon manufacturing
emits toxic chemicals and results in the emission of hazardous air pollutants. As a last insult
to injury, most of these rayon fabrics contain none of the odor eliminating properties
originally contained within the bamboo, and are not biodegradable. This is a prime example
of greenwashing where companies try to capitalize from the trendiness of buying
green. Do not fall for this trap. Not all bamboo clothing is bad, but this is a serious issue and
you should exert caution before you buy clothing made of bamboo.
Bamboo versus cotton: The rayon, lying, and greenwashing aside, bamboo can still make
good clothing, and you may want to buy some. When it comes right down to it, what is worse,
bamboo or cotton? Despite the bad rap I just gave bamboo, industrial cotton is pretty nasty
stuff. Growing cotton uses 22.5% of all insecticides applied worldwide, and can use around
250 gallons of water per t-shirt, not to mention the bleaches and chemicals used during the
manufacturing process. However, in the cotton world, the word organic can go a long way,
drastically improving the sustainability of your clothing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be
said about bamboo textiles. Many companies are claiming their bamboo is organic due to its
pre-manufactured growth, but once it is manufactured into rayon this organic standard is
blatantly ignored. It does not seem right to label this fabric organic when rayon is so bad for
the environment, and the FTC seems to agree. In my opnion, organic cotton is the way
to go. However, if you want a cheaper shirt that feels great and is still better than regular
cotton, then go ahead a grab the bamboojust make sure the manufacturer is certified and
uses a closed loop process which means that chemicals are reused and are never released
into the environment.
Bamboo and the environment: Just because humans can take a plant and
manufacturer it until it is bad for the environment, does not mean the plant is bad on its own.
Bamboo actually offers critical habitat for many species of birds, insects, mammals, and even
other plants, providing shade, nutrient recycling, and water storage. The Giant Panda is best
known for its consumption of bamboo, but other vulnerable species, such as Mountain
Gorillas, Bongos, Tapirs, Lemurs, and Red Pandas, also rely on the grass. Thanks to its
remarkable net-like root system, bamboo is also great at reducing soil runoff and preventing
erosion. Also, topsoil is not altered when bamboo is harvested because the plant does not
die. Furthermore, bamboo appears to have several advantages over trees in terms of
sustainability and carbon sequestration. Under strict harvesting management (bamboo
should be harvested around every 10 years), bamboo sequesters as much or more CO2
when compared to the fast growing Chinese Fir. These conclusions are particularly
significant because of bamboos ability to be harvested sustainable at a 15-20% rate every
year, without damaging the environment or its productivity. If the harvested product can hold
carbon for decades to come (in flooring or home construction), then bamboo presents clear
benefits in its ability to sequester CO2 and combat climate change .
Final Bamboo Thoughts: Sustainability aside, bamboo is a remarkable plant. Its speed
of growth and strength are admirable, and its ability to thrive with little care is incredible. For
that reason, be wary of your surrounding environment before plating bamboo, because it can
easily push out other species, and is known to be invasive in North America. Concerning
applicability, there are tradeoffs with every material, however, the most important thing to
know is how your product made it to you for purchase. Trust the company you buy products
from, and be aware of the shipping emissions associated with your purchases. Do not be
fooled when a company claims its product is 100% organic bamboo, and make sure it is not
really made of rayon. Bamboo can be sustainable, but there can sometimes be too much
even of a good thing. If we can responsibly manage bamboo, ensuring that it does not harm
other species or biodiversity, then it will benefit both our society and our environment.
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