Is bamboo actually environmentally friendly?

One Change: You’ll find it in many eco products these days, but how sustainable is it?

Bamboo: There are more than 1,200 species, some of which can grow at the rate of one inch every 40 minutes. File photograph: Getty

Bamboo: There are more than 1,200 species, some of which can grow at the rate of one inch every 40 minutes. File photograph: Getty

 

Bamboo can be used to make just about anything – from toothbrushes to flooring to underwear. The plant, which is part of the grass family, is a natural wonder: it grows easily and fast; needs little water or pesticide; absorbs 35 per cent more carbon dioxide than trees; and it’s strong but lightweight.

China is the biggest producer of bamboo but it will grow almost anywhere – even in damp Ireland – because it is such a highly adaptable plant. There are more than 1,200 species, some of which can grow at the rate of one inch every 40 minutes. It is a fast-producing, zero-waste crop (every part of it can be utilised) and it seems to be found in plenty of eco-friendly products these days. But just how sustainable is it?

The answer isn’t straightforward – and depends on a few factors such as what it’s being used to make, how far it’s travelled, and how it’s treated and farmed. This information, however, isn’t always easily available to consumers.

If bamboo is used in its raw state and shaped into chopping boards or utensils, for example, and used like wood – this would seem to be fairly low impact. Though that’s provided it was grown in a sustainable manner – and not as a mono-crop which can be hugely damaging to natural habitat. So it’s a matter of checking the label. The Truthbrush company, for example, states that its brushes are made from bamboo grown in a sustainable forest in China, and they offset the carbon shipping of transport – all of which makes them a better alternative to plastic.

Tissues and toilet paper are also made from bamboo but – like making these products from wood – involve breaking raw material into pulp, mashing and so on. The Cheeky Panda company says its products are made without chlorine, are sustainably sourced in China and are partnered with the World Land Trust (of which David Attenborough is a patron). Are bamboo tissues better than recycled ones – or even partly recycled tissues made closer to home? That’s a complex question that involves a totting up of many different variables – and there is no clear answer in this case.   

Clothing is where bamboo gets tricky. When you think about it: making an extremely hard material into something wearable yet washable and durable is always going to be an energy-intensive process. Converting a woody cellulose raw material into a soft fabric can only realistically be achieved with the use of chemicals – but if treated properly can be done sustainably. Cotton, by comparison, requires huge amounts of water even if it is sustainably produced. The bamboo clothing industry would seem to be a bit behind in transparency – in comparison to ethical and organic cotton brands – but hopefully we’ll be hearing more about that in years to come.

@SorchaHamilton

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