Bamboo has become the sustainability movement’s materials of choice. But is bamboo sustainable in all of its forms? Not necessarily.
There’s a difference between lightly processed bamboo goods and those that undergo a series of chemical processes. While both of these goods are made with bamboo, only one of these is sustainable. So, let’s understand When bamboo is sustainable and when it is not.
Is bamboo sustainable?
Bamboo is a tree-like grass found mainly in Asia. Many animals -- like Pandas -- love bamboo because there is a lot to love. The sustainable qualities of bamboo are significant:
- It is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers
- It requires no irrigation
- It rarely needs replanting
- It grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-5 years
- It produces 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees
- It sequesters carbon dioxide and is carbon neutral.
Many forms of bamboo products are now available in stores and online. But there’s a limit to when bamboo products can be considered sustainable. So, what consists of eco-friendly bamboo use? Mainly when bamboo is lightly processed.
Woman working with bamboo material. When bamboo is lightly processed retains its original form like in this clip, it is more sustainable than other raw materials.
Bamboo is an excellent alternative to steel and different forms of wood. Many homes in Asia are made using bamboo rather than steel or wooden frames since bamboo is so durable and allows a great formation when it comes to construction.
The added benefit is that bamboo is produced faster than metal or wood. While timber takes about 30 to 50 years to harvest, you can harvest bamboo every 3 to 7 years. From quick growth to requiring less energy and resources to grow, bamboo proves to be the ideal option for construction.
As mentioned above, bamboo is a great alternative to wood. This means you can easily add bamboo to your flooring rather than opting for hardwood floors.
Hardwood floors require maintenance and the wood used to make the hardwood takes a lot of time to grow. Therefore, bamboo, in its purest forms, proves to be the right choice to add to your home when compared to hardwood flooring.
Another great and sustainable use of bamboo is eco-friendly home products such as kitchen products, toothbrushes, toys, etc. These products are lightly processed and are reusable and extremely durable.
The process through which these products are made is fairly simple since they don’t require harsh chemicals or extreme conditions during their manufacturing process.
Bamboo being processed to make bamboo products.
When bamboo isn’t sustainable
Consumers have become conditioned to believe anything that says “made using bamboo” is completely sustainable, many bamboo products aren’t sustainable at all. It depends on how the bamboo is processed and how that processing affects the environment.
The main culprit for unsustainable use for bamboo is textiles. Bamboo made with textiles -- often called bamboo rayon -- undergo a harsh chemical process that creates a soft fabric. Rayon is a generic term for fabrics that are made from plants that you could never imagine as a soft, silky fabric.
Unfortunately, many manufacturers have been marketing bamboo textiles as the “greener alternative” as consumers and brands are coming to grip with the fact that the fashion industry is one of the most unsustainable industries in the world. The sad reality is that these textiles are not sustainable at all and these manufacturers are engaged in greenwashing.
Most bamboo fabric that is the current eco-fashion rage is chemically manufactured by “cooking” the bamboo leaves and woody shoots in strong chemical solvents.
It is an intensive process and exposes workers to chemicals that cause tiredness, headache, and nerve damage. There is also uncertainty where manufacturers dump the residual chemicals from this process that makes this process even more suspect.
The environmental issues with bamboo rayon are so significant that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Amazon, Macy's, Leon Max, and Sears because they promoted bamboo textiles as environmentally sustainable. According to the FTC:
"While so-called bamboo textiles often are promoted as environmentally friendly, the process for manufacturing rayon – even when it is made from bamboo – is far from a “green” one."
Is there any way at all to make eco friendly bamboo textiles?
Fortunately, yes! There are two main ways to sustainably manufacture bamboo textiles.
The first way (and the older way) is to create bamboo linen. Bamboo linen is very sustainable because the manufacturing process is mechanical, not a chemical process. It involves crushing the woody parts of the bamboo plant and then use natural enzymes to break the bamboo walls into a mushy mass so that the natural fibers can be mechanically combed out and spun into yarn. It is essentially the same eco-friendly manufacturing process used to produce linen fabric from flax or hemp. The reason bamboo linen is rare is that the process is labor-intensive and costly.
The second way is the Lyocell process. This process manufactures bamboo textiles in a benign and eco-friendly way using a closed-loop manufacturing process so that 99.5% of the chemicals used during the processing are captured and recycled and used again. Only trace amounts escape into the atmosphere or into waste waters and waste products. The lyocell process also uses less energy and less water than the traditional process that produces bamboo rayon.
Bamboo Lyocell Process from Ettitude
Bottom line, rather than opting for processed bamboo rayon clothing, there are many other sustainable options out there such as sustainably harvested cotton and hemp or bamboo linen and lyocell.
The top-selling sustainable bamboo products
To help you with shop for sustainable bamboo products, here’s a list of our top-selling bamboo products! They’re – as we recommended -- lightly processed eco-friendly home products that you can easily make a part of your life as you go about living a sustainable life.
The natural bamboo toothbrush offers you a sustainable way to go about your daily routine. Brush your teeth with soft and gentle bristles to ensure the protection of gums and teeth. They’re made using 100% biodegradable and sustainable bamboo so you don’t need to worry about causing damage to the environment!
Use this reusable set on the go! Carry it with you always to have a sustainable kit available at all times when you go out to eat. They come with an upcycled utensil holder and give you a long use.
Yogi in search of a sustainable way to practice yoga? This bamboo yogi block is lightweight and can be used for a series of yoga movements. It is eco-friendly and has a smooth finish.
Avoid using cotton pads that come in a plastic container. This durable bamboo box is perfect to store your makeup remover pads. It’s reusable as it can be washed easily as well.
Reusable Bamboo Straws! They’re reusable and 100% biodegradable. Besides being very trendy, these straws are perfect for cocktails, fruit juices, soft drinks, and more.
bambu's Veneerware® is the one and only single-use product made from 100% certified organic bamboo
Each utensil is made from a single piece of USDA certified organic bamboo and is hand burnished to a naturally-smooth finish.
USDA certified organic bamboo, with a small, patented bump on the back – a natural characteristic of how bamboo grows.