Bamboo seems to be one of those buzz-words throughout the sustainability community. When someone markets a product as bamboo, they automatically attract people looking to promote a ‘greener’ and more sustainable lifestyle. This idea association was so deeply engrained in consumer culture that the FTC wrote an article in 2009 called, “How to avoid BAMBOOzling your Customers,” trying to properly educate retailers on how to accurately advertise bamboo products without being misleading. Four years later, companies like Amazon and Sears that ignored the original warning, agreed to pay a total of $1.26 million in penalties for falsely advertising products labeled as bamboo and misleading customers under the guise of sustainability. To sum up the industry, in 2013 there was a recorded whopping of $1.86 billion traded into Europe and North America of bamboo products. The question remains though – is bamboo eco-friendly?
So what is the actual reason for all of the hype? Well, as you may already know, despite its size, bamboo is a grass. As any living thing grows, it uses carbon to build its biomass through a process called carbon sequestration. This process pulls carbon dioxide from the air to use those carbon atoms in the living biomass of the organism. For grasses like bamboo, most of their carbon sequestration is contained within the root system – not the stalks. In fact, it is estimated that 67-81% of their carbon sequestration is contained within the root system! When bamboo stalks are harvested, the plant can continue to survive off of its extensive root system. This not only leaves the majority of the bamboo carbon sequestration intact, but it also allows for faster regeneration for next harvest from the existing root system. Some species of bamboo produce extremely tall grasses capable of growing as high as twelve meters. Because it is a grass, the bamboo growth cycle is very different from that of trees. Bamboo will spend 3-5 years laying down a root structure and base layer for nutrient absorption and then grow rapidly in a short period of time. How rapidly? Well, it can grow two centimeters in an hour, which would be almost half a meter in one day! Based on information from various sources, that may be a conservative number. If you would like to learn more about the bamboo growth cycle in detail, you can look at this article here from Bamboo Botanicals. They provide in depth education on bamboo’s growth and phytotomy. This does help shed some light on our original question – is bamboo an eco-friendly product?
It is easy to see how bamboo harvest is highly sustainable, but where is bamboo farmed? Currently the majority of farms are concentrated in Asia and because of this, transporting materials accounts 25-40% of the carbon emissions from bringing bamboo to market. In addition, large bamboo farms are often criticized for reducing the biodiversity of species in an area. These estimations are calculated through a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA’s are an environmental impact estimation based on specific parameters under specific conditions. They analyze the production and movement of goods (among many other aspects) to better understand where is a product’s greatest Global Warming Potential or carbon footprint. This LCA involves all predictable stages of a product’s life-cycle – the expression used is, “from cradle to grave,” essentially saying from production through disposal. To read more information on LCAs and how they are formulated, we would recommend this article from EcoChain. Other important measures involved in an LCA are often water use, eutrophication, smog, dust, toxicity, depletion, land-use, and waste. Despite having an incredibly high proportion of carbon emissions due to transport, bamboo often remains a carbon neutral or carbon negative product! This is to say that it often absorbs more carbon than is required in the production and use of bamboo!
So, is bamboo an eco-friendly product? Unfortunately, there is no blanket statement that applies all of the time. What it boils down to (pun intended), the more production and processing required to make a certain product from bamboo, the greater the carbon footprint will be. Bamboo, in its wood form has wonderful benefits for the environment. However, when extra processing is required to make papers, textiles, and other products, that processing often removes bamboo from the sustainable category. When making bamboo purchases, it is important to follow up on the process involved in making that product. Even though something may be marketed as sustainable, it can be helpful to follow up on how the product is made and see what chemicals are used to make that product. As a partial rule of thumb, if the product still looks like the original wooden bamboo you would expect, it is probably sustainably harvested and made. If it appears in other forms – cloth, paper towels, toilet paper – you should be skeptical and do a little more research on the manufacturing process of that product.
If you do have some old bamboo products that you would like to dispose of, you can check out our blog post on Urban Composting to see what options might be available for you!