Bamboo Is Everywhere These Days — But How Sustainable Is It?
The word "bamboo" on a label is meant to inspire an immediate trust that a product was made sustainably. But how much better is bamboo than the materials it's replacing? Let's dive into what makes the plant different.
The history and forecasted future of bamboo.
Bamboo's roots trace back to ancient China, where it was used to make food, clothing, instruments, medicine, and building materials as many as 7,000 years ago. Over the centuries it has also maintained a spiritual significance, believed to be a symbol of prosperity and divinity. According to Eastern design philosophies like feng shui, its strong roots and rigid, uniform stalks are thought to bring progress and good luck to the home.
While bamboo can grow pretty much anywhere there's water and sunlight, the majority of it is produced across 7 million acres in China. The rest of the world is starting to catch on to it: While 60% of the demand for the product still comes from the Asia-Pacific region, increasing exports to the U.S., Germany, and France are driving serious growth. Now worth $68.8 billion, the market for bamboo is expected to climb to $98.3 billion by 2025.
Room to grow.
Part of bamboo's appeal lies in the unique way it grows. "Bamboo grows differently than trees," explains David Knight, the co-founder and CEO of Resource Fiber, a a U.S. bamboo fiber and products company in Alabama. There are over a thousand different types of bamboo, he explains, but a plant will typically need five to 10 years to grow untouched before it's strong enough to be harvested the first time.
Once it reaches that phase, some varieties can grow up to 2 feet every day. And thanks to its incredibly solid root structure, bamboo can withstand being harvested year after year. "Because it's so prolific and renewable, you can pull about 50 million pounds of bamboo fiber annually from about 1,000 acres once it reaches maturity," says Knight. "You can do that for decades without replanting it, whereas when you cut a tree down, that's it." He estimates that bamboo can produce six times more fiber than a timber tree on the same plot of land.
Keeping the roots intact also means they'll be able to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere. According to Project Drawdown, which analyzes the potential of 100 climate change mitigation strategies, one acre of bamboo forest can absorb 2.9 tons of carbon a year. Just as old-growth forests are sinks that store greenhouse gases, bamboo farms—when properly managed—can benefit the environment in similar ways. Bamboo can also grow in relatively poor soil conditions, which bodes well for its environmental appeal.
A wide-open market.
Once harvested, bamboo can be used in its solid form or broken down into a fiber known as bamboo viscose or rayon. Breaking it down into a pulp fiber can be water- and chemical-intensive, but some companies, including Tasc, an bamboo activewear line, and Boody, a clothing company based in Sydney, Australia, claim to reuse these water and chemicals to make production as low-impact as possible. "First up, the shoots are cut into chunks of raw bamboo. The bamboo is then soaked in a softening solution to make it malleable to turn into bamboo viscose," Erin Orbach, a brand manager for Boody, says of the process the company uses to make its fabric. "This system is closed loop—all liquid is recycled and all solvents are caught and removed to ensure the process is as eco-friendly as possible."
While Knight has nothing against consumer-facing bamboo products like these, he thinks the material's real potential lies in its industrial uses: "It's really nice to have clothing and paper and such out of bamboo, but it's not the highest and best use of the fiber," he says. "That's kind of dumbing it down to its lowest economic level. And because there's only 77 million acres of bamboo on the planet, it could be used for a lot of other things that have a higher intrinsic value."
Instead, Knight is partnering with large industrial companies to use the material, which can be as strong as concrete and steel, to replace timber and petroleum-based materials like plastics and automotive parts. "We're realistic enough to know that we can't replace all of the petroleum-based products with bamboo fiber," he says. "But what we can do is displace a certain amount of it in a variety of products, which then allows us to have a pretty major impact."
The bottom line.
Lesson learned: Bamboo is a super unique plant that has the potential to be used in many industries to lower impact. But, as with any other material, it needs to be grown and harvested responsibly in order to be truly sustainable. It should be grown without synthetic fertilizers or herbicides. Patience is needed so that the plant isn't harvested before it's ready or over-tapped so the root system gets damaged. If the bamboo is further broken down into pulp for fabric, the manufacturer should be able to detail how they are working to close the loop and keep processing materials out of the environment. Finally, it's important to remember that the vast majority of bamboo is still grown in Asia, so it already has a pretty high carbon footprint by the time it gets to the states.
Though the bamboo market is largely unregulated, the Forest Stewardship Council is now starting to add transparency to the industry and certify bamboo that has been grown in an environmentally and socially responsible way (i.e., no clear-cutting, unsafe working conditions, or monoculture forests). Another watchdog group, INBAR, is now working to push more policies around sustainable bamboo production in about 50 countries around the world.
At the end of the day, bamboo isn't immune to the problems that plague other natural materials, but its unique growing pattern could make it a standout material in the fight against climate change.
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