Bamboo: Beauty or Beast?

Welcome to the first edition of Spotlight, the blog series where we shine some light on the truth about the things touted as good for us or the planet. This time we will be focusing on bamboo.

Background and Basics

Bamboo is a type of grass with over 1200 species found across the world. In the plant world it is rather special, and able to boast a whole host of impressive statistics.

  • The largest species of bamboos typically reach 30m in height, while the smallest mature at just 0.1m.
  • The widest bamboos can exceed 0.2m in diameter.
  • Bamboo boasts astonishing biomass generation. The fastest bamboos can grow up to 0.91m in height in just a single day.
  • The tallest recorded species of bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) can exceed 50m in height!
  • Through sequestration – that’s using carbon in the air as an energy source – Bamboo can produce 35% more oxygen than trees.

In addition, bamboo is loaded with amazing properties.

  • It regrows itself to the extent that the same bamboo can be harvested every 3-5 years, depending on source, and bamboo species.
  • It’s remarkably hardy, surviving the atomic blast at Hiroshima better than any of the other plants and animals.
  • Due to its complex root structure, bamboo can be used to fight soil erosion.
  • Bamboo can grow  sufficiently well to be commercially viable without pesticides or fertiliser.
  • Its high growth rate and prodigious root network make it a natural cleaner for diluting the concentration of nutrients in certain landscapes, or purifying land from chemicals and certain toxins.

Uses

As you can imagine, bamboo therefore has a huge number of uses. With such a variety of beneficial properties, the bamboo grass is incredibly versatile. These include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Environmental tools; riverbank protection, soil cleaning, nutrient absorption, erosion protection.
  • Garden plants
  • Indoor purifiers
  • Flooring
  • Scaffolding
  • As a construction material for buildings and roads
  • Kitchen utensils and other household objects
  • Art and furnishings
  • Paper is made from bamboo pulp
  • Bamboo fibre can be turned into fabric for underwear, socks, and clothes
  • Bamboo powder can be made into a plastic alternative, increasingly used for products like pet bowls and flower pots.
  • Toys, instruments, and accessories
  • Food, dietary supplements, animal feed, fertility aids and beer
  • Baby diapers

For even more uses visit here for the most comprehensive list we found while researching. It seems to the right minds that the potential for bamboo is truly limitless!

But…

Unfortunately, bamboo isn’t quite the miracle it seems. The battle for a sustainable planet isn’t plain sailing, and there is a catch. Quite a number of them, actually.

  1. Sustainability. On its own, bamboo is amazingly sustainable, as discussed above. However, because it’s so popular, and cheap to produce, the market is growing at an extraordinary rate. Unfortunately a side effect of this is that forests are being removed so that intensive bamboo plantations can be created. In turn, this heavy farming is creating a mono-culture. As this blog post explains (with references), deregulation of forest use intended to help protect forest land has actually now had negative consequences.

    “Many forests were clear-cut to plant money-making mono-cultures such as bamboo plantations.”

  2. Safety. Although bamboo doesn’t need fertiliser and pesticide, commercial demand means that it is often used anyway. Most commercial plantations exist in China, where this is unregulated and often lacks transparency. Buy organic where you can.
  3. Again, transparency is very poor, generally speaking, in the Chinese bamboo industry. Evidence suggests that all bamboo fibre (for clothing) from China comes from one huge company who has arrangements with many licensed agents. This company, Jigao Chemical Fiber Co.Ltd. manufacture their fibre from bamboo harvested at thousands of plantations in China, each under different standards and different regional laws. Therefore, particularly in the clothing industry, it’s very hard to know how sustainable or organic the bamboo is.
  4. Inconsistency. As mentioned, bamboo is hot property at the moment, and a real buzz word for advertising and new products. Being under the spotlight as it is, tonnes of research has seemingly been carried out. Unfortunately it seems its hard to distinguish between neutral research, research funded by companies seeking to sell bamboo, and that conducted by companies with vested interests against bamboo. Most of the claims made about the material, from its strength to its antibacterial properties have been validated and discredited by research.
  5. Treatment and aftercare. Bamboo may be a green and healthy material, but it doesn’t follow that it will be green and healthy by the time it reaches the user. There are lots of examples, but we particularly urge you to be aware of:
    Bamboo flooring, as the adhesives involved in the bonding process can contain formaldehyde.
    – Bamboo utensils, furniture, and decorative items, because again, the bonding agents can be dangerous to you and/or the planet.
    Bamboo fabric. Seriously. This can be surprisingly terrible for a whole host of reasons, from chemicals leeching into your skin, to polluting local water sources. The materials used can be of uncertain origin as well, and some manufacturers use very intensive chemical processes to create their fabric. Not because it is necessary sadly, but because it is cheaper and requires less human labour.

The end of the rainbow

All of the above is very much true, and a definite cause for concern. HOWEVER, that is not to say that bamboo can’t be a fantastic, interesting, sustainable and responsible material choice.

  • Research is definitely key. The more transparent the manufacturer is, the more likely they are to be supplying a safe and sustainable product.
  • Check for certification. There are bamboo flooring companies certified by the FSC (like Plyboo)
  • For clothing, always aim for closed-loop production, or better yet eco-alternatives like greenyarn who incorporate particles of bamboo to gift their products with the benefits for around 6 months, without the typical overuse of chemicals.
  • There are some fantastic bamboo product companies out there that use certified organic bamboo that is baby and animal safe – no nasties. Like Bambu.
  • Certain types of product, such as bowls, pots, and pet products, can be made from a special kind of bamboo material that is green as can be. Also called bamboo fibre, these products add rice husk and other natural ingredients to ground up bamboo from 100% recycled chopsticks, scaffolding, and other suitable goods. We are particularly impressed with Beco and Green Tones, but we must stress that we are NOT endorsed or sponsored in any way, and other great alternatives exist.

There you have it, our Bamboo Spotlight. We hope you find the information useful, and can see that Bamboo can be both Beauty and Beast, depending on how it is treated by the humans meddling with it. We’re pretty sure that’s a theme for a classic film by a prominent animations company. As ever, let us know your feedback in the comments, contact us @earthlovingpaws or at pawtheloveofearth@gmail.com.

Image credit: © Lidian Neeleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Thanks for reading,

The Paws

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