Plastic waste. It is everywhere. Our throw-away approach to plastic is causing us huge problems. With many alternatives now around, let’s consider bamboo. And ask ourselves, “bamboo versus plastic - is bamboo an eco-friendly alternative?”.
Plastic is a useful material because of its many advantageous properties. It is cheap to produce, adaptable, durable and versatile. All reasons for plastic’s popularity.
And plastic has had a dramatic impact on our lives. For decades it was a material we took for granted. We threw it away, we produced more and we used more. From its ubiquity and many valued uses through to the resulting mass of the stuff now floating in the world's Oceans, we have lived through many years full of plastic.
It is also impossible to avoid it as it is almost everywhere. From smartphones to cars and food packaging, our reliance on this durable and functional material has led to 348 million tonnes of the stuff being produced every year.
Yet, each year, 8 million metric tons of the plastic we produce plastic finds its way into the Ocean. And masses of plastic waste is washing up on beaches, with 60-80% of marine waste consisting of plastic13. Once in our landfills or Oceans plastic can take thousands of years to decompose6.
As a result, we are now looking for alternatives to plastic. People are switching to reusable containers and even super-markets are actively moving to reduce plastic packaging waste.
Thus, for a cleaner planet, we simply cannot keep adding to the plastic waste that travels the world via our oceans. So, in our search for sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives, natural materials such as bamboo may well be part of the answer.
Can bamboo really compete with and replace some of our plastic consumption5?
Bamboo is actually a type of grass, with a hollow stem. It grows prolifically in its natural home in more tropical and humid climates.
Bamboo is widely available. Large quantities can be found in many countries across Asia, Africa, South America and the USA.
It’s also very strong. Many examples throughout history demonstrate Bamboo’s versatility and various benefits. Its hollow nature, strength, lightweight and fast growth have traditionally made it perfect for the construction of everything from Bamboo homes through bridges.
However, in more recent times, the mass production of plastic has somewhat sidelined Bamboo’s potential role in our modern lives.
All the same, we can now witness Bamboo becoming a more accessible option as companies search for opportunities to provide more eco-friendly alternatives a growing number of consumers now demand. As such, in our fight against plastic waste, we should consider the qualities of bamboo and check how well those eco-friendly claims stack up.
Some now consider bamboo to be the green gold that we have been looking for. If the bamboo versus plastic argument is going to carry some serious weight in favour of bamboo then we should look at the reasons why we can use it as a replacement
Bamboo has been used for centuries and for good reason. It's fast-growing, cheap to produce, ubiquitous and versatile. It is easily and readily available. And so, it's already well-positioned to keep up with any growth in consumer and production demands.
Further, it is also an eco-friendly renewable material. Therefore, as it is harvested, it can be replanted and grown again. Many species of Bamboo grown in the right conditions can reach maturity in a couple of months. Far faster than most trees which can take years or even decades.
There is also little need to use pesticides or fertilizers because Bamboo has natural antifungal and antibacterial properties.
To add to this, growing Bamboo typically uses less water than trees2. Researchers suggest this is as a result of better storage of water in the growing Bamboo shoots and less leaf foliage per plant.
What’s more, we can use it, plant more and help to reduce carbon emissions at the same time as bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than the equivalent volume of trees.
Further, unlike plastic, Bamboo is also fully biodegradable and compostable3. As a result, as any natural Bamboo products do get to the end of their useful lives, once discarded they will not take thousands of years to decompose.
We use over one million plastic bags each minute and studies suggest as little as 9 per cent of the plastic we use is recycled or reused11.
We have taken our planet for granted, dumping waste carelessly and now we are waking up to the impacts. Our behaviours have to change if we are to make a serious impact on our plastic waste.
We also have to take into consideration the manufacturing process involved in making plastic and the impact it has on the environment. We use our finite oil reserves to make new plastic. Of course, this oil comes from drilling and refining both of which inevitably cause more harm to the environment than growing a field of Bamboo.
And once we have oil we then use more energy and chemicals to manufacture it into the many types and variants of plastic that we have become used to having in our daily lives.
So, is bamboo a viable alternative? Absolutely. When we look around our homes, there is plastic everywhere. However, quite a lot of our household items can be replaced with bamboo.
Bamboo toothbrushes can replace plastic toothbrushes. Chopping boards made from Bamboo can replace plastic chopping boards. Bamboo makes for an excellent alternative to disposable plastic plates and cutlery. We can even use Bamboo straws instead of plastic straws.
Further, we’re also starting to see increasing amounts of textiles used for clothes being sourced from Bamboo fibres. Reducing our reliance on petroleum-based synthetics often blended with cotton which typically requires more water and energy than Bamboo to provide the end fibres used in our clothes.
Bamboo grows in natural environments and is not susceptible to lengthy and polluting production processes like plastic10. Unlike other products, it does not have to go through significant changes in order to become usable. Especially in its natural form for everything from bowls through to cutlery.
It is also a material that can offer many of the same properties as plastic. It is durable, versatile and strong.
What also makes bamboo a feasible alternative is its production costs. Tapping into a natural material that is already widely grown can present cost advantages when at scale. Of course, this also means that it does not use oil reserves to produce the raw materials.
While this sounds promising, a chemical process is required to extract fibres from Bamboo for use in items such as clothing and textiles8. Various chemicals including sulfur and sodium hydroxide are used in order to obtain the cellulose fibres that are then used in textile production.
As per many manufacturing processes, the resulting by-products can cause harm to our soils as well as impacting nearby biodiversity. Of course, we also need to create chemicals in the first place. Unfortunately, processing bamboo in this way is not an exception.
In a similar way as several types of renewable energy such as solar power and wind power will be required to meet our clean energy needs, the same will be required in order to significantly reduce our use of plastic. Biodegradable and compostable alternatives will inevitably come from several sources9.
Whether it is a biodegradable toothbrush or clothing, bamboo is one of the alternatives that we can now choose.
Meanwhile, scientists and researchers continually look for improvements in the production and manufacture of our day to day goods. And today the search for more environmentally friendly products continues at a pace.
It's certainly possible more viable alternatives may come to the fore. Be that more cost-effective or with less harmful manufacturing. Similarly, we can expect environmental improvements to many of the manufacturing processes we see today, including those of Bamboo. As such, quite how significant Bamboo will become as a long term replacement still remains to be seen.
The future will almost certainly present a wider range of plastic alternatives than we see today. Will Bamboo continue to grow in popularity and deliver its green gold promises? We’ll have to wait and see.
What we do know is that we must balance the damage we are causing to our planet, our natural habitat and our health. Especially when considering what happens to those microplastics when they enter the food chain4.
On the up-side, it is sustainable, does not take an age to decompose and can be grown on a large scale. It can also help to offset CO2 emissions, which is another key benefit.
Meanwhile, plastic is killing wildlife and marine life whilst also causing changes to our natural ecosystems. It is also littering our beaches. Plastic is a problem.
Thus, there’s little argument that we must make changes to help mitigate the pollution of our planet and Oceans with disposable single-use plastic. Therefore, we must increase our use of sustainable natural alternatives which biodegrade naturally.
Bamboo does require a potentially harmful manufacturing process to arrive at some of the goods it might replace. However, are the problems less significant than the problems caused by Plastic? It certainly doesn’t look that way.
Bamboo provides a natural and organic raw material we can use here and now in place of many of our day to day plastic items. And that has to be good news.
Of course, a big part of the answer is reducing our need to consume as many single-use items in the first place. Swaps are part of the solution. Reducing and reusing is also key.
Thus, we have the choice to replace plastic with bamboo where possible and practical. If we can make scale up the environmentally friendly manufacture and subsequent use of bamboo, we can help to make a dent in the damage caused by plastic.
And then we can then work to clean up our beaches and oceans without adding to the plastic pollution we’ve already caused.
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