As far as renewable, sustainable resources go, bamboo is an industry favorite. Perhaps what makes it special is its speedy growth. A species of this wonder plant in the United Kingdom holds the Guinness world record for the fastest growing plant. Bamboo sustainability is not without question, regardless of how useful and eco-friendly it is.
Known as ‘the poor person’s timber,’ bamboo can be applied to meet a wide range of human needs. In many rural areas around the world, it is a source of shelter, food, and fuel. And as the world tries to combat global warming and live more sustainably, bamboo becomes more important. Increasingly featured in reusable zero waste products, we explore below the environmentally friendly credentials of this natural resource.
Bamboo is a type of grass. It can grow as a woody plant or herbaceous shrub. The bamboo family Poaceae has over 115 genera and 1400 species. It grows in tropical, sub-tropical, and mild temperate regions. We find the largest number of species and biomass in Asia, while some bamboo species are native to the southern part of the United States.
Bamboo is a perennial crop, it is evergreen. The grass grows speedily, sometimes as much as 35inches per day. Some species can grow to about 130 ft in height, and bamboo holds the record as the world's fastest-growing plant. Bamboo propagates through underground stems called rhizomes, this means the plants grow very close together and form clusters or groves. We don’t see bamboo flowers often, as most species produce flowers and seeds only once in their lifetime and not until after 12-120 years. The majority of species flower rarely with gregariously with synchronized seed production.
The bamboo stem is called a culm, and it may stand erect or be slightly arched. The culm is cylindrical and hollow; it is divided into ringed sections by nodes or internodes. The culm consists of 10% conducting tissues, 40% fibers, and 50% parenchyma. The bamboo structure is composed mainly of vascular bundles, which makes it a natural composite and anisotropic material. Bamboo fiber differs in length from species to species.
Bamboo has two types of leaves; they are the culm and foliage leaf. Both leaves perform different functions. The foliage leaf deals with photosynthesis, while the culm leaf serves as protection for the young shoot.
The bamboo plant may be one of the most exploited agricultural resources in the world. This may be because of the ease of cultivation and its high industrial value. Substituting trees or plastic with bamboo in most industrial processes is more environmentally friendly. But what makes a bamboo product sustainable? Is it just the fact that the raw material is renewable, or does the environmental impact of the product a determining factor as well?
When we compare bamboo to plastic, without a doubt, we can say bamboo is better for the environment. Unlike plastic products that never decay, bamboo products decompose into organic matter and enrich the soil. One great thing about bamboo products is how easily you can compost them once they are no longer useful.
Toothbrushes, plates, straws, mattresses, and even bamboo sunglasses and watches are examples of bamboo products replacing plastic that we throw away after a short period of use. And our plastic waste is filling up landfills and causing trouble in our oceans. Humans and wildlife are in danger from plastic pollution. Therefore alternative products made from bamboo are good for the environment. Not only will the bamboo decay, but it also discourages one-time usage. We can use some bamboo products like bamboo straws more than once.
Bamboo production is very lucrative, and as the pressure to find alternatives to tree-based products continues to rise, so does its value. This means that bamboo farmers need to produce even more bamboo and to do this, they need more land. The problem here is that there is not an abundance of empty land for farming. The farmers have to clear existing forests or grasslands.
This results in loss of habitat for wildlife and a decrease in natural ecosystem diversity. Because of the aggressive nature of bamboo’s natural propagation, it is challenging to grow the plant in any system other than monoculture. And we know that biodiversity suffers in a monocultural system of agriculture. Pandas may survive solely on bamboo. Other animals can not. Bacteria, fungi, and other animals need a biodiverse habitat for nutrition.
China has no firm laws on bamboo farming, so farmers are left to run their operations as they see fit. Although bamboo does not require chemical fertilizers, there is evidence of farmers using it to speed up growth. Companies that depend on China for bamboo are aware of the unethical farm practices. But the supply system is not as transparent as it could be. Therefore they find it difficult to source 100% ethically.
If the demand exceeds sustainable and ethical production capacity, bamboo might become a problem. However, if companies explore other alternative resources, we can avoid overdependence on bamboo as we try to do what's best for the environment.
China’s bamboo production provides the majority of raw material for commercial products. So even if they make a particular bamboo product in the UK or USA, chances are they imported the material from china. This means they ship a large percentage of bamboo products available today from China, that’s a lot of travel miles. Shipping miles contribute to the carbon footprint of a product, and bamboo products that travel such a long distance have a higher carbon footprint. Products with a high carbon footprint don’t qualify as eco-friendly, as the emissions contribute to global warming, which, of course, challenges bamboo’s sustainability.
Bamboo rayon has come under heavy criticism for not being a natural fabric. The production process of this bamboo-based rayon is what puts its sustainability in doubt. Turning the plant fiber into rayon fabric is a chemical-intensive process that uses chemicals like carbon disulfide and sodium hydroxide. Carbon disulfide is a toxic substance that can damage the brain and weaken a person’s reproductive system. Sodium hydroxide, on the other hand, can cause eye and skin allergy.
With the knowledge that human workers have to handle the production and textile waste usually end up in rivers, critics consider the combination of these two chemicals a health and environmental hazard. Although, some brands claim to produce their rayon in a closed-loop system, where they minimize waste and pollution, improving sustainability.
In 2010, the Competition Bureau instructed that bamboo fabrics be labeled rayon or viscose. The reason for this is that, although they make viscose fabric from the cellulose fiber of bamboo plants, the fabric is essentially synthetic. However, if you were to wear viscose at all, would you wear viscose made from oak or beech trees or one made from bamboo? Keep in mind that bamboo regenerates faster than trees. In terms of ease and speed of cultivation, the plant surpasses organic cotton, but a lot of work remains to improve the sustainability of bamboo textile products.
Sometimes they use chemicals to produce bamboo products. These chemicals may prevent decay when we expose the product to moisture or serve other purposes. As such, the sustainability of bamboo does not entirely eradicate the chemical process in manufacturing. However, there is no doubt that the chemical process of making a product from plastic or iron is more intense than bamboo.
#1 - Bamboo is a plant with the highest growth speed in the world.
#2 - Bamboo is a grass, not a tree.
#3 - Bamboo has high tensile strength along its length but is weaker across its width.
Famously, Pandas dine only on bamboo while mountain gorillas and lemurs eat it as part of their diet2. It is also a delicacy in Asian cuisine.
#4 - A panda's diet comprises 99% bamboo.
Pandas consume about 26-84 pounds of bamboo every day, and they feed on some specific species. The reliance of pandas on bamboo as a major food source puts them in a difficult position when they experience habitat loss. As plantations spread, farmers will invade natural bamboo forests and modify them to turn profits. This, of course, can not happen if the pandas are chewing on the produce.
#5 - Bamboo is naturally pest repellent due to its hard and salicaceous skin.
#6 - The tallest bamboo on record is 130ft tall.
#7 - Thomas Edison used a carbonized bamboo filament in his first successful lightbulb.
Famous inventor Edison and his team tried over 3,000 theories to develop incandescent light bulbs that could be controlled individually. The lights also had to be less bright than the arc lights that existed at that time to be suitable for household use. The materials for this bulb had to be affordable if they would be distributed to households across all income brackets.
He and his assistant tried out over 6,000 plant materials as filament for his incandescent bulb. Ultimately, he settled on a carbonized Japanese bamboo. It worked for over 1,200 hours when electrified. The use of bamboo helped Edison avoid legal problems with other inventors who had developed the same incandescent method using carbonized thread.
#8 - The Chinese bamboo industry employs about 35 million people.
In 2017, bamboo farmers in china earned an average of 500 USD. Also, as the cultivation is not labor-intensive, the farmers can do other jobs to earn additional income. According to a 2017 report, there are 7.55 million farmers involved in bamboo production4.
#9 - The Moso species dominate Chinese bamboo production.
The Moso variety is considered a ‘star’ in China's bamboo industry. Moso produces good edible shoots and high wood yield. It is one of the species with fast growth and expansion rate.
#10 - All plants of a particular bamboo species flower simultaneously, wherever they are in the world.
In the late 1960s, the world witnessed a rare sight, the flowering of Phyllostachys bambusoides, a bamboo species. Regardless of climate differences and soil conditions, the plant produced flowers anywhere observers found it around the globe. The plants grew seeds before they all died.
The new generation of this species is yet to flower, and according to experts, they won’t do so until 2090. Over the years, Chinese scholars kept a record of the flowering cycle of this species. Their earliest records show that the Phyllostachys Bambusoides flowered in 999 A.D and later in 1114. The Japanese recorded the flowering in the 1700s and 1840s.
Other species also have their unique synchronized flowering and seeding time, some as long as 32 years. One explanation that scientists have offered is that the bamboo plant does this as a defense against extinction. Daniel Janzen, an ecologist, suggested that the synchronized seeding creates a seed glut. This abundance is so much that even after seed predators like pigs, rats, and birds have eaten their fill, there will still be enough surviving seeds to continue the next generation.
Humans have used Bamboo since ancient times for various purposes, and it remains relevant today. For many green enterprises bamboo is a precious raw material. Unlike trees, bamboo mature within 3-5 years, depending on the species. It plays a significant role in relieving the timber pressure in china.
Bamboo plants take in more carbon dioxide than trees and produce 35% more oxygen. Research shows that a hectare of bamboo can absorb about 12 tonnes of CO2 in a year. Further, the fibrous root network helps to hold the soil together and prevent soil erosion. So planting bamboo on slopes or areas prone to flooding is very effective in preventing landslides.
Manufacturers use the pulp from bamboo fibers to make fine quality paper and eco-friendly toilet paper. It contains 40-50% a-cellulose, almost the same as soft and hardwoods. This makes it more sustainable as a raw material for the pulp and paper industry.
Today, people who want to live a zero-waste lifestyle can use straws, toothbrushes, and other bamboo products instead of plastic.
Environmentally conscious companies also use bamboo to produce eco-product packaging. Bamboo is a sustainable alternative to paper made from virgin trees, seeing as we throw the paper away, eventually. Trees take longer to grow and require more space and water than bamboo. And when it comes to packaging, an eco-friendly, biodegradable pack trumps plastic.
This versatile crop also proves very useful in building because it is strong and long-lasting. Large bamboo stems provide planks for rafts, houses, and flooring. You can find bamboo stems at construction sites, serving as scaffolding, a common sight in Africa and south-east Asia.
Using bamboo as a building material is not a recent innovation. People used local plants to build entire houses in ancient times. In the 1980s, there was a shortage of building materials, especially timber. This led to a renewed interest in bamboo as a building material. We can use bamboo to make columns, structural walls, doors, windows, and even roofs.
There are about 20-38 species of bamboo that are useful for building. The Moso, Guada, and Giant bamboo are the strongest and most prominent1.
Local artisans craft walking sticks, fishing poles, buckets, baskets, and utensils using bamboo. Bamboo stakes are also great for gardening, and the stems are useful as water pipes. People also use bamboo to make poultry coops, bridges, and furniture.
Some manufacturers in the textile industry use bamboo plant fibers to produce bamboo clothing. They are softer than cotton and feel like silk but may be cheaper than silk or cashmere. Bamboo rayon and bamboo linen are examples of fabrics. When bamboo fabrics first entered the market, proponents sold them as an eco-friendly alternative to silk, cotton, and polyester.
To make bamboo fabric, the factory uses mechanical or chemical processes. In the chemical process, they use a chemical solution to dissolve bamboo pulp and then pass it through a spinneret to produce a chemically solidified yarn. They produce bamboo linen through the mechanical process. It involves crushing the stems and extracting the fiber with the aid of natural enzymes. They then scour the fiber and spin them into yarn. This linen is eco-friendly, but the labor-intensive production makes it expensive.
Bamboo is also an energy source. People use it directly to kindle fire, or they convert it to charcoal. Aside from cooking, people use activated bamboo charcoal as a local disinfectant, purifier, and deodorant. This charcoal also has applications in the high-tech industry. A project produced a special polymer from this charcoal to weave high-performance fabric.
In some parts of Asia, bamboo is a food source, and they eat the seeds and shoot. Some Chinese cuisines have young bamboo shoots as vegetables and seeds as grains. Bamboo meals have low fat and calorie content, but they are rich in fiber and potassium. Some bamboo species are colorful and pretty, and they add great beauty to the environment.
Bamboo is significant to some cultures. In some Asian countries, people run into bamboo groves during earthquakes because they believe it provides safety and good fortune. Traditionalists make local musical instruments like flutes, ukuleles, xylophones using bamboo.
Another ancient use of bamboo is folk medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine uses treatments made from bamboo to treat lung and stomach heat and clear phlegm3.
Bamboo naturally grows in temperate regions of Africa, America, Asia, and Oceania. We can find the highest concentration of bamboo plantations and species in Asia. In 2018, the Asia-Pacific bamboo market accounted for over 60% of the global bamboo revenue. Experts valued the global bamboo market at 68.8 billion USD in 2018, and we expect it to increase at a CAGR of 5.0% from 2019 to 2025. In 2019 it was worth 72.10 billion USD.
China is the largest bamboo producer and exporter, while Europe consumes 38% of the world's bamboo products. This makes Europe the largest importer of bamboo5.
The fast-growing grass does not need fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides to produce maximum yield. It does not require a lot of water and can adapt to various soil and climate conditions. Rainfall patterns affect the distribution of bamboo species across the globe.
Bamboo farming is not labor-intensive since the plant regrows from its root system, so there is no need to replant after every harvest. A hectare of bamboo can yield 30 tonnes in a year.
With proper management, bamboo plantations can improve the soil and local climate.
Is bamboo sustainable all the time and in all places? The rapid growth rate makes this unique grass highly sustainable. It sequesters more CO2 than trees and helps prevent soil loss. It is also anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable.
Lots of brands have found it useful in conserving forest tree resources and replacing plastic products. However, depending on source and manufacture, bamboo does present issues that companies using it as raw material need to address to increase its sustainability. These challenges do not take away bamboo’s potential as an alternative to fossil fuel and timber.
Rashmi Manandhar, Jin-Hee Kim & Jun-Tae Kim (2019) Environmental, social and economic sustainability of bamboo and bamboo-based construction materials in buildings, Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 18:2, 49-59, DOI: 10.1080/13467581.2019.1595629
Nayak, L., Mishra, S.P. (2016). Prospect of bamboo as a renewable textile fibre, historical overview, labeling, controversies and regulation. Fash Text 3, 2 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40691-015-0054-5
Panee J. (2015). Potential Medicinal Application and Toxicity Evaluation of Extracts from Bamboo Plants. Journal of medicinal plant research, 9(23), 681–692. https://doi.org/10.5897/jmpr2014.5657
Fidel A. T., Chenyang Xu. (2014) Plantation management and bamboo resource economics in China.
Bamboo Market Size. Grand View Research.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.