Bamboo products are everywhere at the minute and are said to offer a green, eco-friendly alternative to the likes of plastic and synthetic materials.
Items from clothes to coffee cups can now be made from bamboo with the companies celebrating and marketing their greener product.
But what is the truth to the common environmental benefits we often see associated with bamboo? Are the sustainable benefits to bamboo too good to be true or is it actually a fantastic eco alternative?
Let’s take a look to see if bamboo really is eco friendly or not.
Why is bamboo considered a special eco crop?
One of the main benefits you see linked with bamboo is that it’s a fast-growing plant. It’s for this reason that bamboo is described as an ‘eco-crop’.
There are around 1,500 different bamboo species and the majority are rigorous growers. This is because bamboo naturally grows in dense forests where it’s an advantage to grow fast and reach sunlight as soon as it can.
Bamboo is a type of grass that will self-propagate through its large underground network rhizomes. This allows the plant to spread rapidly and pop up anywhere if it’s not contained. It also helps to improve soil condition, as well as preventing erosion and flooding. All very good environmental credentials.
The bamboo used for the products we are seeing in a lot of online eco shops today often come from types of timber bamboos.
Timber bamboo plants produce woody stem growths that can grow very rapidly during the growing season. This type of bamboo produces an incredibly strong and durable fibre.
All in all, it takes a bamboo plant around 4 or 5 years to mature where it can reach heights in excess of 100 feet.
What are the benefits to using bamboo?
You’ve already heard that bamboo plants can help improve the all-important soil condition as well as grow rapidly.
The short growth cycle of bamboo is the perfect partner for harvesting. Unlike a tree, you can chop down bamboo in the knowledge that the plant won’t die and will bounce back to grow again.
This type of harvesting has benefits when it comes to absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. It’s thought that a forest of living bamboo can absorb a similar amount of CO2 as a forest of trees.
This sustainable type of harvesting is similar to how cork is produced, another good eco-friendly alternative. With cork, the bark is harvested whilst the tree remains fully in tact and taking in carbon dioxide over the period of a number of decades.
The other great thing about bamboo from an environmental perspective is that it can grow without pesticides, in fairly poor soils and with relatively little water.
It doesn’t need fertilisers, but just like the grass on your lawn, it does respond well to the extra amounts to reach optimal levels. So, although it doesn’t need extra nutrient inputs, this isn’t to say that growers won’t use chemicals to try and maximise growth.
As well as the environmental benefits, bamboo is said to have natural anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, although this depends on how it’s processed as we’ll find out in the next section.
Is bamboo a sustainable material?
So, to the crux of the question – is bamboo a sustainable material?
To answer this, we need to weigh up a few different areas when assessing the sustainability of a product including:
- Source of the raw material
- Growing methods – including chemical and water inputs
- Processing – including energy, water and chemical use
The most common type of bamboo fabric is bamboo rayon. This is also called viscose and eco-cashmere.
Rayon is a highly processed material that requires intensive and chemical heavy inputs. The name bamboo rayon is used to make it sound more eco-friendly.
Once cut, the bamboo stems are soaked in caustic soda to break the plant down into threads. These threads are then bleached, a method which can involve the use of sodium hydroxide and carbon disulphide.
Even more, the process uses massive amounts of water and destroys any antimicrobial properties in the product. This is why these claims can be false if the bamboo has been processed with chemicals.
Excess water use, chemicals and bleaching can also occur when making paper and toilet paper from bamboo. So, be careful not to fall for any greenwashing when buying more eco toilet roll.
Eco friendly bamboo tissue products do exist. I talk about a few in my Naked Sprout review.
Bamboo can also be used for construction and as a building material. This comes with an environmental footprint too as bamboo for construction needs to be treated and preserved to prevent bacterial and fungal attacks.
There’s then the question of shipping and the carbon cost of transport.
Most of the bamboo grown in the world comes from China. Although it’s getting better, the information about how it’s grown and harvested is a little scarce. Despite this, there are plenty of Forest Stewardship Council certified bamboo forests, such as in the Anji County of China.
Even though you can buy sustainable bamboo products in the UK it’s likely to have travelled a long distance.
Can bamboo be bad for the environment?
By itself, the bamboo plant has many positive impacts on the natural environment and local ecosystems.
It’s the processes that humans put bamboo through and how the bamboo forests are developed which can create problems for environmental sustainability. If natural forest is being felled for a bamboo plantation, is that really eco-friendly?
Bamboo products that are touted as eco-friendly are processed with chemicals and mixed with other synthetic materials.
For example, bamboo toothbrushes often have plastic bristles. Bamboo cups and kitchen products are sometimes combined with melamine binders, which have been found to be bad for human health, although this is being slowly phased out. I have a bamboo coffee cup that doesn’t contain melamine thankfully.
Bamboo products that have been combined with other materials are then rendered very hard to recycle and non-biodegradable. Not very good for the environment.
What products are made from bamboo?
There are now many products made from bamboo that are available in a variety of different industries.
Bamboo is commonly used in these five areas.
1. Paper and pulp
Using bamboo as a raw material for paper and pulp helps to lower the rates of deforestation – as long as forests aren’t being cut down to replace with bamboo plantations!
Other than commercial paper, bamboo paper products in the market include eco toilet paper, kitchen paper towels and coffee filter papers. These alternative paper products have the same properties as the customer is used to.
It’s also worth noting that bamboo packaging has also been picking up in the market recently and becoming renowned as a more sustainable alternative than the usual packaging materials.
2) Clothing and textiles
Bamboo fabric for clothing is also becoming more popular on the general market. It’s described as more eco-friendly fabric than others like cotton as it is less resource-intensive, but as we’ve seen above, this may not necessarily be the case.
Bamboo fabrics, such as bamboo linen, are strong and durable, as well as breathable, fast-drying and absorbent. It’s easy to see why it’s becoming a popular fabric, we just need to make sure it’s being sustainably produced for it to be eco-friendly. It’s rare for bamboo to be completely organic so watch out for this.
Also keep an eye out for clothing labelled as bamboo rayon, as this is intensively produced with a lot of chemical input. Rayon can’t be described as eco-friendly.
3) As a plastic alternative
Of all the bamboo benefits, it’s use as a plastic alternative is one of the best.
Bamboo can be a super alternative for many single-use plastic products. From reusable bags, straws and coffee cups to phone cases, watches and baby nappies – the possibilities of bamboo products are wide-ranging.
Did you know that bamboo nappies can biodegrade in less than year compared to a normal nappy that takes 500 years?
4) Products made using bamboo ‘waste’
The bamboo chips produced as a by-product of bamboo processing can be repurposed into particle and fibre boards. It can also be processed into various types of biomass energy, such as charcoal, pellets, gas, electricity and briquettes for an eco-friendly BBQ.
Bamboo is considered a better substitute for wood biomass and it’s thought that bamboo charcoal could replace 64% of sub-Saharan Africa’s wood consumption!
Even more, waste bamboo can be converted into products such as activated charcoal used in the health sector and as a natural water filter. Very useful! I have a Black & Blum activated charcoal filter and it’s great.
5) Building material
Bamboo has strong fibres which are crucial for any form of building material.
Bamboo can be used in flooring, decking, furniture and even for outdoor constructions. With its versatility like wood, bamboo can also be curved without breaking to form architectural components.
Are bamboo products eco-friendly and better for the environment?
If grown in a sustainable way, bamboo is a very ethical and eco-friendly material.
But, it may be a stretch to say that bamboo is the ultimate saviour for ethical and sustainable products. That said, bamboo can offer a much brighter and eco-friendlier future, we just need to be careful of outright greenwashing from many companies using not-so environmentally friendly bamboo processing techniques.
For it to be sustainable, we need cleaner processing and manufacturing methods to get the bamboo fibre fit to be developed into a useful product.
Bamboo may not be able to replace all wood and synthetic materials in every sector, but it can certainly become more prevalent. It’s also possible to make bamboo bioplastics, which may play a large role in this emerging sector.
As a consumer, we also need to take responsible action for our buying habits and try and source more local bamboo if possible, that’s got a transparent journey from forest to product.
Overall, bamboo can be an eco-friendly option that’s better for the environment. However, there is a continuum of bamboo sustainability that can verge into being bad for the environment if it has been grown and processed in intensive ways.
If you found that interesting, read more blog posts here…
Ben is the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about more sustainable, environmentally friendly living in and around the home.
Alongside this website, I love spending time in the natural world, living a simple life and spending time with my young family (Murphy the dog!) I round up my thoughts and recent blogs on the Eco Life Newsletter.