How ‘green’ is bamboo?

Photo of bamboo (from an original image by David Clode on Unsplash)Are we helping to save the planet by using more bamboo in our everyday lives?

Bamboo seems to have captured the mood of the moment and is being heralded as an environmentally friendly alternative to many products traditionally made of plastic or other non-renewables – anything from toothbrush handles and reusable cups, to clothing.

I have seen it labelled as ‘the world’s most renewable material’. Cut it down and it regrows – fast! It is holder of the Guinness World Record for fastest growing plant (with some species reported to achieve growth rates of 4cms per hour you can literally watch it grow!). A bamboo crop doesn’t require fertilizers or pesticides and this allows a natural eco-system of insects, birds and small animals to co-exist. Another major plus point is that bamboo helps reduce CO2 and can generate up to 35% more oxygen than equivalent stands of trees.

But is the use of bamboo materials as ‘green’ an option as we think?

The creation of products such as bamboo toothbrushes and reusable bamboo coffee cups seems to be relatively uncontroversial1, but what about the processes that convert a tough, fibrous material traditionally used to make houses, scaffolding and bridges into a soft and durable fabric2?

The commonest method involves extensive use of harsh chemicals such as chlorine, sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide to convert bamboo from a plant into a fibre similar to Rayon. The chemicals produce an environmentally hazardous cocktail, which filters into the environment and can be abandoned into waterways or landfills. Some of the chemicals used have been linked to serious health problems, which is an issue for the workers in the factories who create the fabric and the surrounding wildlife.

There is a slightly more ‘OK’ version of bamboo fabric known as bamboo lyocell (Tencel) which involves a closed loop cycle, meaning the water and chemicals involved in making the fabric are recycled and never get the chance to escape into the environment.

The greenest method involves mechanically crushing the bamboo stalks with natural enzymes that create a pulp that can be spun into a yarn which is then used to create bamboo linen. This process is however very labour intensive and expensive meaning that relatively little bamboo linen is produced.

It seems that bamboo has the potential to be both a sustainable and eco-friendly material, but currently its use as a clothing fabric leaves a lot to be desired. Let’s hope that textile manufacturers will continue to investigate more eco-friendly ways of producing bamboo-based products, but in the meantime while buying solid bamboo items is a good thing, we do need to think carefully about bamboo fabrics. Non-organic cotton and even some organic cotton also have environmental impacts3 though so, as usual, it is not easy being green. However, we can minimise our impacts by only buying what we really need and buying second hand where possible.

Adapted with permission from an article by Anne Waite on behalf of Wye Eco Church Group
Alison Riggs and Clare Taylor, St. Luke’s Environment Officers


Footnotes

1 Check out the following websites for a couple of interesting articles looking at the production of bamboo toothbrushes and coffee cups www.brushwithbamboo.com/about-the-brush and www.lboro.ac.uk/services/sustainability/waste/cups/ecoffee.

2 www.contrado.co.uk/blog/bamboo-jersey-the-holy-grail-of-fabric-or-pandoras-box/ & www.elkieark.com/blogs/eco-living-sustainable-living/organic-bamboo-bed-linen

3 www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton & www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5a1a43b5-cbae-4a42-8271-48f53b63bd07

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