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Bamboo is actually a type of grass and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest growing plant on Earth (more on that later). As well as food for pandas, and humans, it’s been used to make various products, from houses to bicycles, for thousands of years.
But, as our consumptive needs continue to grow, is bamboo a sustainable material? Can it be grown, turned into products, and then disposed of to meet our current needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? Let’s find out!
As mentioned, bamboo is the fastest growing plant on Earth. Some species can grow a blistering 91 cm per day. Fast growth is certainly useful for producing a lot of raw material quickly, but how about other aspects of bamboo growth?
Unlike wood, with which bamboo shares similar properties, bamboo can be re-harvested again and again once it has reached maturity. As well as being great for renewability, this means that no deforestation has to occur, itself a messy process. It also means that bamboo’s extensive root system can remain intact, which is great for soil health.
Bamboo is naturally antibacterial and is extremely efficient at using reprocessing nutrients, so it doesn’t require pesticides and little to no fertiliser to grow, although some farmers will add the latter to increase yields. For this reason, it’s important for manufacturers to source from certified organic sources.
Bamboo also makes extremely efficient use of water. It generally requires half the amount of water as trees, so it grows densely and can produce 20 times more usable materials in a single harvest.
Due to its fast growth, bamboo absorbs twice the amount of carbon as trees and produces 30% more oxygen when compared to the equivalent tree mass.
Bamboo is produced at a commercial scale in China, where it has grown naturally for millions of years. To meet increasing demand, there are reports of some opportunistic farmers clearing natural habitats to make room for bamboo monoculture plantations. This is concerning as it negatively impacts biodiversity.
For this reason, it is important for manufacturers using bamboo to source it from regions where it grows naturally as part of a diverse ecosystem.
This is a difficult question to answer as it depends on the product. As a rule of thumb, the less processing required the better.
Bamboo toothbrushes, for example, require very little processing. Bamboo is carved into shape and then the bristles are added. When the brush is no longer fit for purpose, the bamboo handle can be safely composted in nature. A much more sustainable alternative to plastic toothbrushes, which will stick around for ages.
Considering what toilet paper is normally made from, i.e. wood, the way bamboo is grown and harvested makes the raw material more sustainable from that perspective. From a production perspective, making bamboo toilet paper doesn’t require bleaches, like chlorine, or any other nasty chemicals that end up polluting the environment. After use, bamboo toilet paper is 100% biodegradable and will break down quickly and is safe for use in septic tanks.
Bamboo toilet paper doesn't require chemical bleaches
To turn bamboo into a useable fabric for clothes, aka Rayon, typically requires a lot of processing, using a lot of energy and chemicals, so many don’t consider this to be sustainable. There are greener, mechanical alternatives out there but these are still energy intensive.
Bamboo is a renewable material that, if grown and harvested correctly, is a more sustainable alternative to plastic, wood or steel. It’s lightweight, durable and can be disposed of without harming nature.
Of course, for those of us in the western world, bamboo products have to be shipped from China, which adds to the overall carbon footprint. That’s why it’s always better to go with climate compensated shipping option if available.
Things to look out for in a sustainable bamboo product:
- Organically grown
- FSC Bamboo certification
- Minimal processing
- Climate compensated shipping