What Can’t You Do with Bamboo?

Sarah Moore Impact Mill Contributor
Bamboo

Bamboo seems to be the answer to everything these days. Bamboo cutting board? You know it. Bamboo kitchen utensils? Indubitably. Bamboo yoga skirt? Yes siree.

But here’s the thing about bamboo … how much do we really know about it? For me personally, the answer is not much. So I went on a little hunt to figure out how sustainable this “renewable” resource really is, and the best ways to get more of it in my life.

Bamboo’s Benefits

A quick Internet search brings home the idea that bamboo is actually a pretty darn good sustainability option. It’s good for the air, since it sequesters carbon dioxide by snatching it out of the atmosphere and fixing it in the soil, and it releases oxygen. And since bamboo forests grow so densely, they give off roughly 30 percent more O2 than trees. As far as carbon sequestration technologies go, this one’s pretty low-tech and high-efficiency.

Moreover, bamboo is grown as a crop, which means that when it’s cut it’s not “deforested,” it’s simply harvested. Because it grows a minimum of 30 inches per year, and will grow readily in USDA zones 7 and 8 (and sometimes 5 and 6), it’s actually a good candidate for domestic farming here in the US. Even in China, there’s no need to worry about taking leaves out of the panda’s mouth, because it’s farmed there too.

Lastly, bamboo is amenable to organic, sustainable farming. Because it grows so densely, weeds and pests are less of a problem than with other monoculture crops. Poultry can patrol the acreage where bamboo is grown and provide pesticide and herbicide services in lieu of chemical inputs.

Material Manufacturing Process

Once grown and harvested, bamboo is used to make many different items. Bamboo flooring, for instance, is made with thin pieces of bamboo poles that are sliced and adhered to a flat support material. Unfortunately, the adhesive used for this often contains formaldehyde, which releases carcinogenic VOCs into the air. That’s not so great.

The good news? If you look, you can find flooring made with ultra-low VOCs, registering in the range of “not detectable.” Considering many types of flooring release VOCs, and that chemical-free hardwood is not necessarily sustainable, bamboo is a good option. Plus, when bamboo is used for kitchen utensils like spoons, no glues or lacquers are necessary.

Bamboo also has several benefits when it comes to clothing manufacturing. Compared to cotton, it’s naturally softer, less allergenic, antimicrobial, moisture-wicking, and durable, and requires less dye. It can also be used to make rayon, one of the world’s most popular fabrics, the raw fibers of which formerly had to come from trees or cotton.

Renewability Versus Sustainability

Bamboo can be grown more densely, more quickly, and with less water than cotton – and way faster than trees – so it’s definitely hitting renewability targets on all fronts.

Bamboo

Bamboo is a naturally abundant resource | image: Arneliese/Flickr

Sustainability, however, is a bit trickier. Simply because something can be organic doesn’t mean it isn’t grown with lots of toxic inputs. Most bamboo fabric is still made in China, which has somewhat lax environmental standards compared to other developed countries. While that’s getting better, the textile manufacture process can still involve lots of bleach or additives if you don’t buy from the right companies.

As with any other product, there is also no guarantee of good working conditions or fair wages, so you have to be vigilant. Look for companies who source fabrics from partners that meet global standards, and avoid any company that doesn’t share where their fibers, fabrics, wood products, or labor comes from.

An Inspiring Resource

Still, at the end of the day, bamboo does seem to be kind of a wonder material. I, for one, am in the market for some new shirts, and will be searching for bamboo clothing companies that meet all my requirements. At the top of the list right now are Bamboo Clothes and Blue Canoe, but we’ll see what further research turns up.

For now, know that bamboo may just be the sustainable jackpot it’s being touted as, so long as you’re careful to buy from the right place.

Sarah Moore is an Impact Mill contributor and freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, local food, and the weirder side of science. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, running, and cooking. Sarah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two children, two dogs, and an unshakable colony of June bugs.