03 Jun Is Bamboo Truly Green?
10 years ago, I had maybe walked on bamboo flooring once and possibly admired someone’s ornamental indoor plant, that’s about it. Today, there is not a room in my house or aspect of my life that bamboo hasn’t touched. Literally.
As I lie in bed on my bamboo sheets, I think about it… This morning I put on my bamboo sunglasses and biked to work on my bamboo bike. When I came home I made dinner with bamboo cutting board, bowl and serving utensils. Later I changed into a bamboo T-shirt to sleep in, brushed my teeth with a bamboo toothbrush, and even wiped my butt with toilet paper made from the stuff. And that’s not even the extent of it; I have shampoo in my cupboard; a straw in my purse; skewers, toothpicks and chopsticks in my kitchen all made of – you guessed it.
Weed, Timber, or Pure Gold?
I’m starting to believe the landscape critics – this plant is definitely an invasive weed that is taking over my life! Okay, okay, I’ll admit it is kind of the family business and I may have a couple more products than the average person in my community. But that aside, in my effort to reduce my environmental impact (via consuming less petroleum-based products, using less disposables, plastics and non-biodegradable material, etc) bamboo seems to be everywhere as THE alternative.
So, is it really green? Is it truly the eco-alternative that I want it to be? Is it a sustainable alternative to plastic? To wood? To metal?
In answering that I’m going to break it down, because I’m starting to learn that the sustainability of the plant and the ecosystem have many different factors than the sustainability of the manufacturing and distribution processes.
Growth & Harvest
Bamboo grows fast. Really fast. Since it renews faster than trees, that’s the first point on the side of sustainability. Another plus is how harvesting stimulates new growth. So instead of damaging the root system and requiring re-planting when the plant is cut, multiple new shoots grow in its place.
The next pro-environment point comes from the properties of bamboo that deter insects and microorganisms from snacking on the plant. This means no need for chemical sprays during growth, woohoo!
Earning it point number 4 (in case you were keeping track), is the plant’s ability to sequester carbon! In a 2010 report, Bamboo and Climate Change Mitigation, researchers determined that bamboo can sequester and store as much or more carbon as fast-growing trees!
So far, it sounds like an actively managed bamboo crop with proper harvesting practices is something that can do a lot of good for the world… but what happens once the plant is cut?
Once cut, the poles have to dry through storage, heating, or soaking. To draw out the moisture, preventing fungal and microbial growth, the bamboo is often soaked in sodium borate (a product not safe for ingestion in large quantities, but safe enough to be used in all-natural cleaning supplies). I’d say this step is pretty neutral, it can require a bit of energy consumption but is a process that is fairly benign in terms of environmental impact.
Let’s jump from the jungle to the city… Now here is where we lose points, in a publication by the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, research on the industry in China found
“The bamboo stem is the most environmentally friendly material compared to all alternatives which have been studied, when it is used directly in bamboo producing countries. However, when it is to be transported to Europe [from China], it loses its environmental advantage, because of the environmental burden of the transport.”
In an effort to reduce their footprint, Junglewood has worked hard to source their bamboo from closer to home. Read more in The Bamboo Trail.
Ok so the natural world seems, for the most part, to benefit from all the bamboo crops, but what about the humans? Is this a socially sustainable commodity? The authors of a paper in the Independent Journal of Agricultural Economics say potentially yes:
“Bamboos contribute substantially to generating income and employment for the rural landless and the forest dependent communities. The employment potential of bamboo is very high and the major work force constitutes the rural poor, especially women.”
However, the authors also say the market needs to take this resource seriously and set up organizational institutions to account for environmental benefits and to fairly distribute profits. This could come in the form of a Marginalised Bamboo Dependents (MBDs) organization and green taxes.
Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India, agrees that this industry needs some legitimate recognition. In Is bamboo a tree or a grass? Narain argues that as it stands, bamboo is botanically a grass, however its classification for economic purposes is still vague. It could fall into the tree/timber category or could be considered a minor forest product. Sounds like a trivial matter, but these definitions make the difference between larger corporations selling bamboo for uneconomical amounts, and local people earning fair prices for their products.
For now, points seem stacked for bamboo. In the next blog we will take a look at the bamboo manufacturing industry… how do you turn this solid tree-grass into soft materials and other products? And are there environmental costs that come along with those processes? Until then, I’ll be continuing to brush and wipe with this wonderfully prolific weed, and feeling pretty good about it.
 Vogtländer, Joost, Pablo Van der Lugt, and Han Brezet. “The sustainability of bamboo products for local and Western European applications. LCAs and land-use.” Journal of Cleaner Production 18, no. 13 (2010): 1260-1269.
 Anitha, V., P. K. Muraleedharan, K. V. Santheep, Shijo Thomas, and M. P. Sreelakshmi. “A Planned Market Intervention for the Bamboo Sector of Kerala.” Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics 63, no. 2 (2008): 188-197.