The Guide to Sustainable Use of Bamboo
It’s no secret that plastic negatively impacts our environment. It kills wildlife, marine life and pollutes our environment. It is neither natural nor renewable, cannot be composted and rarely can it be recycled. And when it can be recycled, it uses up a large amount of energy. Overall, the creation of plastic was a human mistake, and now we need to find alternatives. One alternative we do have is bamboo. In fact, bamboo is currently used widely and internationally, but is the usage of bamboo a cure all for the plastic catastrophe, or does it have its limits? We’ll go over that, but first, here’s some background information on this special plant.
What is Bamboo?
Bamboo is a fast-growing, tree-like grass that is low maintenance to farm and requires little water to grow. Not only that, but it is also the fastest growing plant on the planet with growth up to 3.5 feet per day. There are over 1,400 species of bamboo and it can grow in various parts of the Earth. While most bamboo species enjoy high humid regions like Africa, southern parts of the USA, Australia, South America, and Southeast Asia, it is highly adaptable. Therefore, some species can be found in colder environments of the UK and North America.
An important fact to note is that bamboo, in its raw form, is highly sustainable. Recognize that that makes bamboo conditionally sustainable, and that it is not always used in a way that is eco-friendly. Up next, we will dive deeper into when that is and when that isn't the case.
When is Bamboo Sustainable?
As mentioned above, bamboo is best used when it is raw and not treated by chemicals. Since there is a cornucopia of ways that bamboo can be used, we will go over different subtopics that relate to the usage of bamboo.
Bamboo is comparable to other plants in the sense that it absorbs carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. What is amazing though is how bamboo produces 35% more oxygen than a tree with the equivalent mass, making it an improved source of oxygenated, clean air for humans. Plus, it grows much quicker than trees and as briefly mentioned earlier, is low-maintenance, so developing a bamboo forest is easy. Bamboo is also cost-effective and toxin free to grow because it needs little water, and it doesn't require pesticides or petrochemicals. Furthermore, it can be used often because it has the ability to be harvested every three to seven years, whereas hardwood and softwood timbers can only be harvested once the trees are between 30 to 50 years old.
Housing and Building
Bamboo is a popular material in the construction industry and for good reason. It is stronger than steel, and has a much higher tensile strength, meaning it’s more difficult to pull apart. It can also withstand being smashed better than concrete. And while bamboo is strong, it is light-weight, more so than other building materials like wood. Therefore, it has a small carbon footprint to import. You can find bamboo to be used for many construction projects like scaffolding, road, upright prop and fence building, reinforcing concrete, and constructing houses. It can also be used for household products, but we will later discuss that in depth.
Bamboo shoots have been added to asian dishes for years. You may have seen them at restaurants in stir fries, salads, and soups, or maybe you've even cooked with them at home. I won’t go too into detail about cooking with bamboo shoots, but here are three, helpful pieces of information to remember. One, it is high in fiber and potassium, while low in fat, so it is a great vegetable for weight maintenance and good digestion. Second, it adds a crunch to meals, making it a satisfying addition to dishes with softer ingredients. Lastly, it must be peeled before cooking to chew easier, but the whole bamboo plant is compostable, so it doesn't have to go to waste.
Not only is bamboo a fast-growing plant, but it is also a fast-growing industry that has created jobs for 2.2 billion people. From farmers and factory workers to construction workers and architects, as well as chefs, artists and designers, many people have benefited from the popularity of bamboo. With bamboo starring as a building material, a substitute for plastic products, and a nutrient-dense, textured ingredient for meals, it seems there are even more possibilities for this sturdy, tree-like grass in the future.
Bamboo Products to Buy and Avoid
So now the big questions: Are bamboo products sustainable? Can bamboo products be recycled? The short answer is...sometimes yes, and other times no. The sustainability of a bamboo product and its ability to be recycled depends on specific factors. For example, bamboo in its raw form can be fully recycled and, or composted, so bamboo products in its raw form can be recycled too. Meanwhile, bamboo products that have been chemically treated and highly broken down should be avoided because they cannot be recycled.
It is also preferred to make products from bamboo that is grown locally, or imported from places that are close. Think of it this way, shipping bamboo hair brushes from China to the United States makes much less sense than shipping them from southern US states to Los Angeles, California, because importing at longer distances has a higher carbon footprint. The modes of transportations such as trucks, ships, trains and airplanes are not healthy for our air consumption.
The absolute worst bamboo product you could buy is fabric made from bamboo. Not only is it expensive, but the bamboo material is not naturally smooth, so it’s put through a serious chemical process to make it that way. The bamboo is put in a toxic liquid that contains carbon disulfide, which has negative effects on the human reproductive system, and it pollutes our environment. Therefore, it is preferable to buy organic cotton or hemp fabrics if you want a sustainable and eco-friendly option.
Now that you’ve learned the characteristics of what bamboo products are good, and which are bad, you’re probably wondering what bamboo products are safe and worth buying. Here is a list of bamboo products that are created in its raw form, useful and have a positive environmental impact:
- Kitchen flatware, plates, trays and cutting boards
- Toilet paper
- Toothbrushes and hairbrushes
- Packaging for products
- Kids’ play structures
- Phone cases
- Flooring, fences, and housing
If after reading this article, you feel a desire to incorporate bamboo into your lifestyle or career (ie. Construction, food service, retail business, etc.), make sure you continue to research and make smart choices. Go to the farmer’s market and purchase organic, local bamboo shoots for cooking and eating. Buy bamboo products that are raw, created locally or closely imported, and avoid any bamboo that is chemically treated. Bamboo can be a superior substitute to wood, plastic, concrete, or steel and a delicious food to add to your diet, but it depends on how you use it. Shop safely and use wisely!