No doubt you’ve seen many photos and videos of pandas around the world happily munching on their favorite food, bamboo. They absolutely love it, but it’s not just for pandas. And it’s not just for eating.
For many people, bamboo is their favorite material for a wide range of common household products such as flooring, kitchen utensils and containers, bicycles, musical instruments, furniture, health and beauty products, and even clothing. People love its durability, light weight, and resistance to bacteria. What bamboo lovers find most desirable is that it’s environmentally friendly. But exactly what is it about bamboo that makes it so environmentally friendly? It turns out there are lots of reasons.
But first a little clarification.
What is Bamboo?
Most people believe that bamboo is a tree because, well, it looks like a tree. But it’s actually a fast-growing grass belonging to a group of perennial evergreens in the grass family Poaceae. Some members are quite small while others are extraordinarily huge, which makes them the largest in this grass family by a lot. A bamboo’s stem, or culm, can grow anywhere from only a few centimeters up to about 130 feet, and the diameter of the stem can range from a few millimeters to one foot wide.
Bamboo, in general, is found all over the world in every type of climate with different species favoring a particular environmental zone. It’s unknown exactly how many species of bamboo there are in the world, but it is widely accepted that there is somewhere between 1,000- 1,600 different varieties.
The most recent discovery of a new species of bamboo was in 2007 by three botanists from Iowa State University and the University of North Carolina. They found a new species of North American bamboo, called “hill cane” by the locals, located in the foothills of the Appalachia Mountains. It’s only the third native species that is known to exist in North America. The other two- river cane and switch cane- were discovered over 200 years ago.
Fast Growing and Abundant
Bamboo grows ten times faster than regular trees and up to four feet in 24 hours, which surpasses the growth and maturity rate of any other woody plant. Their flowering cycles can last anywhere from 60-120 years, and they can be harvested every 4-5 years instead of the usual 25-70 years for other commercially grown trees.
There are two types of root systems with bamboo: running and clumping. Clumping roots mean that the roots stay clumped in a ball while the running root system means that the roots can travel away from the root origin for many feet by way of its rhizome structure.7 An example of a running bamboo is the common “fishpole” bamboo. It can grow up to 15 feet tall and its roots can travel as far as 50 feet away from the original root ball.6 7 Such runaway roots can be a problem for the average urban homeowner, but in the wild, it means that bamboo easily and rapidly regenerates itself over long periods of time.
During commercial harvesting of bamboo, the stem is cut down by hand without the need for gas-guzzling tractors. The running root system is left intact, which allows the plant to sprout and proliferate continually throughout the year.
That’s a bonus during the monsoon season. Because the roots are kept intact and are so widespread, bamboo is naturally acclimated to withstand severe weather and natural disasters.4 7 Within a matter of days, new sprouts will emerge even while other plants struggle to rebound.
With such a large number of bamboo, plus its rapid growth rate, it’s easy to see that it’s a highly sustainable crop. That’s good not only for the environment but also for the bamboo farmer who is looking for a low-cost, low-maintenance crop with little replanting and seeding.
Low Maintenance and Healthy for the Environment
Bamboo typically requires little additional watering other than what Mother Nature supplies. Though it is found all over the world in all different climates, it grows more commonly in tropical areas that experience seasonal monsoons. The heavy rains supply plenty enough water to last the whole year, and the bamboo readily retains it, which helps farmers save time and money.
Bamboo also has no natural pests, including termites, which makes it a great material for the kitchen and a natural flooring option.1 And it’s naturally antibacterial and antifungal, which means that farmers don’t need to use any pesticides or herbicides that harm the surrounding environment.
Finally, bamboo is highly cost-effective and easy to maintain for farmers. It can be grown and harvested among other species of plants within the same hectare, which means that no other trees need to be cut down (i.e., no deforestation) in order to grow bamboo successfully. 4
Without the need to regularly irrigate or use any harmful chemicals, and no need to eliminate other species within the same hectare, bamboo becomes a very environmentally friendly crop and source of income for thousands of people in diverse industries investing in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and promoting sustainable agriculture.4
A Climate Controller and Waste Storage Unit
Bamboo plays an extremely active role in controlling greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, the largest greenhouse gas contributor. The accepted belief is that bamboo is capable of removing up to 62 tons of carbon from the air per hectare, and then storing it.4 9 This makes bamboo a far better at carbon storing than any other type of plant including young forests that can only store approximately 15 tons per hectare.9
It hasn’t been scientifically proven exactly how much carbon an individual bamboo plant can store or how much it releases, if any, into the atmosphere, though. A certain study published in 2015 in the journal Plant Biology argues that bamboo may emit more carbon than previously known.5 Without conclusive evidence, however, the prevailing thought is that it has a unique ability to store carbon in ways that other plants can’t, indicating that bamboo may be a key plant in helping to control climate change.5
At the same time, bamboo gives off up to 35% more oxygen than an equivalent group of trees. 4 As a super oxygen producer, it carries more of the load in supplying available atmospheric oxygen than other woody plants.
Bamboo also helps to control nutrients found in wastewater such as nitrogen.4 With an increase in less environmentally friendly farming methods, bamboo can help to alieve the side effects of fertilizers and other chemicals. Its root system acts like a sponge helping to maintain the soil’s pH and act as a natural control barrier for other waste materials. As a result, many environmental risk managers and engineers have taken a new interest in the abilities of bamboo to control waste in our waterways.
Given all this, it’s pretty safe to call bamboo a supernatural plant.
Even More Reasons to Love Bamboo
Aside from being a low maintenance, self-sustainable, supernatural plant, bamboo has even more amazing reasons to love it:
• It naturally repels water in finished products.7
• Its widespread root system helps to prevent soil erosion and improve soil stability, especially in hilly landscapes, along riverbanks, and during heavy rain seasons.4
• It’s useful for making a wide number of products baskets and other household items, lumber for construction, plywood for laminations and veneers, and in the scientific creation of new technology for high-strength bio-composites.4
• Bamboo shoots are nature’s perfect food (it’s not just for pandas!). They’re chock full of vitamins A, B6, and E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, and iron. Plus, they’re super high in fiber, low in calories (less than 20 calories per half cup) and sugar, fat free, helpful in controlling cholesterol, cancer mutations, ulcers, blood pressure, and many other medical conditions. They even possess anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.10 Who knew?
Is Bamboo Organic?
With all of its amazing environmentally friendly characteristics and supernatural abilities, you might assume that bamboo is a certified organic material in the United States. Unfortunately, it is currently only certified in China by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, or OCIA, in cooperation with the USDA National Organic Program and the international OCIA/IFOAM program to ensure that each bamboo plant grows completely naturally and without any chemical pesticides.9
The USDA has yet to certify bamboo as officially organic here in the United States.
Clothing: A Poor Use of Bamboo?
Like other industries, bamboo is a highly sought-after resource in textile manufacturing. It has a higher yield than cotton, is highly renewable, has natural antibacterial properties, is UV blocking, and provides instant moisture evaporation.9 The fashion industry has used it since first creating corsets, so you would probably think that bamboo is a great material for clothing. The truth is it can be, but it depends on how it’s manufactured.
Bamboo fiber clothing, whether made with 100% bamboo or combined with hemp or spandex, is most often rayon, which has been in use since the 1850s.2 Rayon is made from regenerated cellulose fiber, also called wood pulp. It doesn’t really matter what kind of pulp. It can come from any wood and even from paper or cotton fiber, or even bamboo.2
There are two methods a manufacturer can choose to turn bamboo into a suitably soft material for making clothing, bedsheets, and towels. One method is chemical-based and called the viscose process. The other method is a more natural, environmentally friendly, mechanical process called the lyocell process. Here’s the nuts and bolts of how they’re different.
In the viscose process, the bamboo is first dissolved in a thick, viscous solution that consists of caustic soda, or lye, used for purifying and bleaching. Lye is a known air polluter that also destroys the antimicrobial properties of bamboo.2
The dissolved bamboo pulp is then forced through a spinneret and into a carbon disulfide solution to solidify the fibrous strands again. Carbon disulfide is another air pollutant that has been proven to be hazardous to human reproduction.11 Sodium sulphate, sulphuric acid, zinc sulphate, sodium hydroxide, and glucose are also used during the process.9 Only about 50% of this solution is recovered. The other 50% is discharged into the environment resulting in high emissions into the air and water.11
The mechanical, more environmentally friendly, process is called the lyocell process, which is what is used to make TENCIL® fabric from eucalyptus trees. In this process, the bamboo fiber is combed and raked to preserve its antibacterial ability. The fiber is then soaked in an amine oxide solution (a substance that is non-toxic to people) and ordinary hydrogen peroxide to break down the cellulose fiber. After it’s spun into thread, the fiber has a methanol and water solution added to it to harden it up again.9 The result is a fabric that is softer and less likely to cause irritation, even on sensitive skin.11
About 99% of the chemicals used are reclaimed and recycled in the lyocell process.11 However, it’s labor intensive and time-consuming, which means a higher cost for the manufacturer and lower profits. Only companies that are truly committed to producing a “green” product use the lyocell process, and they are few and far between, unfortunately.
Though it’s possible to manufacture bamboo clothing in an environmentally sensitive manner while preserving the natural characteristics of bamboo, the intensive cost and labor required to produce one shirt or towel prevent most clothing manufacturers from doing so.11
A Great Choice For the Home
Despite the problems with producing bamboo fiber clothing, bamboo is still an absolutely great choice any time you are looking for new flooring or cabinets, or kitchen accessories like utensils, cutting boards, bread boxes, and canister sets, and many other products. It’s highly durable, lightweight, resistant to bacteria and bugs, repels water, and is relatively cheap. And it’s incredibly healthy to eat. What’s not to love? Plus, when you purchase a bamboo product, you send a message that you prefer a resource that is sustainable, natural, and could potentially assist with controlling global climate while providing many families with a steady source of income.
There are very few naturally occurring resources that can do what bamboo can. Quite simply, it’s a supernatural, do-it-all plant.
1.The Science Channel. http://astronomycommunication.com/environment/why-is-bamboo-environmentally-friendly/. 2014.
2. Main, Emily. Rodale’s Organic Life. http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/bamboo-not-green-it-seems. July 31, 2012.
3. The Green Pavilion. https://www.thegreenpavilion.com.au/pages/What%E2%80%99s-great-about-bamboo%3F.html. 2017.
4. The Bamboo Information Network. http://www.pcaarrd.dost.gov.ph/home/momentum/bamboo. May 6, 2008.
5. Howard, Brian Clark. National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160324-bamboo-materials-carbon-dioxide-emissions-sequestration/. March 24, 2016.
6. Flanders, Danny. “Avoid Bamboo Like the Plague.” HGTV. http://www.hgtv.com/outdoors/gardens/planting-and-maintenance. Year unknown.
7. Crabtree, David. Shweeash Bamboo. http://www.shweeashbamboo.com/bamboo%20care%20and%20maintenance.htm. 2011.
8. https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/bamboo.htm. Iowa State University, March 13, 2007.
9. Inkredible Image. http://inkredibleimage.com/the-truth-about-bamboo-clothing/. February 7, 2016.
10. Organic Facts. https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/other/health-benefits-of-bamboo-shoots.html. 2017.
11. Copeland, Todd. Ecouterre. http://www.ecouterre.com/how-eco-friendly-is-bamboo-fabric-really/. July 13, 2010.
12. Bamboo Grove. http://www.bamboogrove.com/bamboo-species.html. 2008.