Bamboo 101: All You Ever Wanted to Know About Bamboo
What do bed sheets, fences, and paper towels all have in common? They can all be made from the same stalk of bamboo. (Side note: pandas eat a different variety than the woody kind used for consumer products. There's plenty to go around!)
Bamboo is a wonder plant with incredible growing properties that can be transformed into numerous eco-friendly consumer goods. It’s durable, renewable, and biodegradable, making it a useful alternative to trees, plastic, and even steel.
But there’s some confusion about just what bamboo is and how sustainable it is. There’s a lot of greenwashing these days, and it’s hard to figure out how to make the best, most environmentally friendly choices when it comes to bamboo products.
Bamboo is an amazing sustainable resource, but as consumers, it’s important to look out for a few problems. Here we break down what bamboo is, how it grows, how it’s used, and how you can make the right choices as a consumer.
How Does Bamboo Grow?
Bamboo is a member of the grass family. Like all plants, it starts as a seed. When it sprouts, the roots, or rhizomes, spread and grow underground. The cool thing about these rhizomes is that they form a shallow underground network that holds the top layer of soil together. As bamboo grows, the root system prevents soil erosion and ensures healthy growth.
Some of those rhizomes push their way up and grow aboveground, into shoots. The shoots then produce leaves to capture sunlight and convert it into energy for the plant.
Bamboo shoots grow at a record-breaking pace— in fact, bamboo holds the world record for the fastest growing plant. How fast? Most bamboo varieties reach full growth in about 60 days. After that, the bamboo won’t grow any wider or taller but will produce new leaves to continue to harvest energy from the sun.
How is Bamboo Harvested?
When you cut down a tree, that’s the end of its life. Planting a replacement will take 20-50 years to reach maturity. Not so with bamboo. Cutting it actually encourages new growth!
The plant makes new leaves that provide energy to grow new rhizomes underground. This is what makes bamboo such a great material for consumer goods. It takes just three years for bamboo to reach full maturity, and an entire bamboo field only needs replanting every 50 years.
Bamboo doesn’t require fertilizer or other chemicals to grow and only needs about an inch of water a week. In most growing areas, normal rainfall is all that’s needed to keep bamboo growing.
Bamboo: Stronger Than Steel
Bamboo has long been used as a construction material in buildings— from roofing to flooring and everything in between. Its high tensile strength— or resistance to being pulled apart— makes it tougher than steel, pound for pound.
And a newly developed eco-friendly bamboo composite could eventually fully replace steel and concrete as a lighter, less expensive construction material. Its flexibility and shock-absorbing properties make it an ideal choice for earthquake-resistant buildings and creative architectural projects.
Bamboo’s durability also makes it perfect for smaller household products. You might already own a bamboo cutting board, bamboo straws, or a bamboo phone case. Bamboo is so versatile you can even buy a motorbike made with the renewable grass!
Bamboo: Softer Than Silk
How is it that the same material used for building roofs can also make softer-than-silk sheets? When bamboo is processed, mechanically or chemically, it turns into a pulp that’s ideal for cozier products.
From clothing to sheets to towels, bamboo shows it has a softer side. And of course that everyday bathroom staple, toilet paper. Unlike trees, which take years to grow and die once harvested, bamboo grows rapidly and regenerates without replanting. This makes it ideal for high-demand household items.
But Is Bamboo Sustainable?
For all its versatility, there’s still the question of whether bamboo is truly sustainable. And at Cloud Paper, we’re all about transparency. So let’s take a look at the environmental impact of bamboo.
First, we’ve already established that bamboo is a highly renewable resource. In the age of fossil fuels and massive deforestation, this is a big plus. A plant that grows faster when you cut it down can keep up with the demand for consumer products.
It also prevents soil erosion, needs little water to grow, and filters heavy metals and other toxins from rainwater.
Another point for bamboo is its ability to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide— about 2 tons per clump per year. That’s 3-4 times more than any other plant— including trees!
Bamboo is a natural, renewable, compostable alternative to plastic. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking videos of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Buy a reusable bamboo straw to solve a worldwide plastic problem and save sea turtles. It’s a win-win.
Bamboo for consumer products isn’t just environmentally sustainable. Bamboo farming and harvesting also provide a stable source of employment for struggling rural communities.
Bamboo: Know How to Spot the Greenwashing
Some companies make false claims about the sustainability of bamboo products. Understandably, that’s led to consumer mistrust as companies try to greenwash them.
Three issues regarding the sustainability of bamboo are:
- Toxic chemical processing to make fabrics and other products
- Intensive harvesting and monoculture
- Carbon footprint
Bamboo Processing For Fabrics
While bamboo makes an excellent raw material to transform into sheets, towels, and shower curtains, the process can be toxic. There are two ways to process bamboo to turn it into fabric: mechanically or chemically.
Mechanical process: crushes bamboo fibers and mixes them with enzymes. The fibers are then spun into yarn for clothing and other household items. This process is more expensive and labor-intensive but is also the most environmentally friendly.
Chemical process: as you might have guessed, the bamboo fibers are mixed with chemicals to break them down into a soft material. Most bamboo clothing is made this way, and it’s toxic for humans and the environment.
Bamboo and Monocultures
In countries where bamboo is grown, diverse bamboo forests are often replaced with plantations. The deforested land is planted with one type of bamboo, and biodiversity is lost. This is due to the demand for unsustainable consumer goods such as disposable chopsticks.
A diverse forest is a healthy one. A monoculture creates an imbalance across species — from insects to bacteria to small animals — all who rely on diversity for health and survival.
The Carbon Footprint of Bamboo Goods
Then there’s the issue of carbon footprint and shipping goods made in one part of the world and shipped to another. There’s no easy way to measure this, though, due to complex supply chains. Countries often ship raw materials back and forth (such as virgin toilet paper pulp) making the equation even more complicated.
But when you factor in bamboo’s carbon sequestration abilities, it comes out on top compared to some local alternatives.
And it’s easy to avoid greenwashing if you follow the tips below.
Bamboo and You: How to Avoid Greenwashing Tactics
We’ve compiled a few easy ways you can avoid bamboo greenwashing.
Look for certification
Companies that have sought certification for their products are more committed to environmentally friendly sourcing and production practices.
Here are a few that apply to bamboo:
Forest Stewardship Council: This certification means there are strict regulations regarding the growing and harvesting of bamboo. For example, only land converted prior to 1994 is eligible for certification. This protects biodiversity and discourages deforestation for consumer goods. Cloud Paper uses bamboo that's FSC-certified and sustainably harvested.
OEKO-TEX: Fabrics with this certification have been rigorously tested for harmful chemicals. If you purchase bamboo towels, clothing, or sheets, you definitely want the Oeko-tex certification.
Compost Manufacturing Alliance: If you purchase bamboo utensils, straws, and dishware that claim they’re compostable, look for this certification. CMA provides testing to ensure these products are fully compostable.
Ask companies where and how their bamboo is grown
They should be able to provide you specific, concrete answers to these questions. If they don’t, be wary of purchasing their products.
Ask how companies are addressing gaps in sustainability
For example, if carbon footprint is an issue, is the company taking steps to reduce its impact? Two ways they can do this are by offsetting carbon emissions and trying to source bamboo closer to where products are sold. Cloud Paper double offsets carbon emissions produced in the transportation of our products.
The Wonder Plant Our Planet Needs
Bamboo is truly an incredible renewable resource that, when used thoughtfully and sustainably, outperforms its counterparts across the board.
It’s fast-growing, disease-resistant, hardy, and self-regenerating. It’s perfect for buildings and toilet paper and everything in between. It’s an excellent substitute for tree-based and plastic products because of its renewable and biodegradable abilities.
Just like with any resource, it can be exploited. But if you look for companies that have sustainability built into their business, bamboo becomes the obvious eco-friendly choice.
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