Truth or Trend: Is Bamboo Sustainable?

is bamboo sustainable - tall bamboo plant

I recently switched my plastic toothbrush for one made from bamboo. Now, I’m wondering how far I should go. 

What else should I buy that’s made from bamboo? Clothing, utensils, toilet paper? Should I choose bamboo instead of cotton, metal and hardwood, as I do for an alternative to plastic? 

Bamboo seems to be paving the way as an eco friendly material, but is bamboo sustainable in all its forms? Even when it’s produced in mass quantities? Or when it’s shipped over from China? Is bamboo eco friendly? Or have I been tricked into the latest greenwashing trend?

Let’s take a closer look into the realities of bamboo sustainability.

What Is Bamboo?

Bamboo is a fast growing and renewable tree-like grass. It needs little maintenance to farm as it doesn’t need any pesticides to grow. 

It takes in carbon dioxide and produces up to 35% more oxygen than its tree equivalents. There are over 1,200 species of bamboo in existence and most are highly adaptable. Bamboo is able to grow in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the southern regions of the USA.

young bamboo plant

What’s more, bamboo’s versatility means that it can be used to make a wide range of products. We can find bamboo coffee cups and bamboo alternatives to plastic straws. Plus clothing, flooring, furniture and of course, toothbrushes. 

It’s easy to see why growing bamboo is considered eco friendly, but is bamboo sustainable?

Is Bamboo Really Eco Friendly?

Currently, the only commercial scale production of bamboo takes place in China. This is the biggest concern.

It means that the majority of bamboo products in the UK have been shipped from across the globe. Eco or not, the distance a product has to travel greatly influences its carbon footprint.

Also, China has very few agricultural or environmental standards in place. So this is problematic for other reasons too.

So far, it’s proven difficult to measure how Chinese bamboo is grown and harvested. It’s likely that farmers do use chemical pesticides and fertilisers on their crops. This is to increase yields and income, regardless of the fact bamboo doesn’t need chemical help to grow at a natural rate.

bamboo sustainability - green shoots

Meanwhile, the high-demand for bamboo, within China and globally, can negatively impact ecosystems. 

Farmers may cut down natural forests to make way for bamboo plantations. This destroys the natural habitat of already vulnerable wildlife such as pandas.

When Is Bamboo Sustainable?

Bamboo is an incredibly strong yet lightweight material. Especially when compared to wood and steel. In Asia, it’s used in place of steel for the construction of buildings and roads or to reinforce concrete. 

As it’s technically a grass, not a tree, there are no weak points along its length. This makes it stronger and more durable than even the toughest hardwoods. 

Bamboo also grows much faster than its hardwood and softwood equivalents. As such, it can be harvested every three to seven years. Typically, timber is harvested when trees are around 30-50 years old.  

eco friendly bamboo - bamboo forest

It also takes less energy and other resources to produce bamboo over wood or steel. 

Undoubtedly, if we’re living sustainably, bamboo ticks a box. It’s a more sustainable and hard wearing alternative for furniture, flooring and many household items. 

Moulded bamboo is also an eco friendly alternative for plastic kitchen utensils and tableware. As long as it’s free from melamine, which is considered toxic by many.

But as with anything green, the answer to the question, is bamboo sustainable, isn’t clear cut or straightforward. 

When Is Bamboo a Bad Option?

On the surface, bamboo looks like a sustainable solution for the textile industry. But its use as a fabric is actually where this grass falls short. 

There’s good reason why Global Organic Textile Standards don’t give certification to bamboo textiles. Not even if they’ve been produced with organically grown bamboo.

Turning rough bamboo grass and shoots into a usable fabric is not an easy feat. It requires an intensive and chemical heavy process to produce the fabric.

bamboo shoots - is bamboo sustainable

In industrial textile production, cellulose-heavy bamboo pulp is dissolved in a chemical solution. It’s then pushed through a spinneret to produce a yarn which is chemically solidified. 

Once the yarn has been produced, it’s often treated with dyes, bleaches or formaldehyde. The end product is a rayon fabric which is far from natural or organic.

The same argument can be applied to the production of cotton. Cotton is often treated using a chemical process. But unlike bamboo, it’s possible to buy Fairtrade certified and sustainable cotton.

There is an alternative mechanical process that can turn bamboo into textile fibres. This process is considerably greener as significantly fewer resources and chemicals are used.

But, like linen and hemp, it’s still an energy intensive process. It involves shredding, mashing, and combing before spinning the fibres into a yarn.

Is Bamboo Eco Friendly When It’s Used for Toilet Paper?

In 2018 the UK is estimated to have used an average of 127 rolls of toilet paper per person. Much of this paper is made from virgin softwood. That’s incredibly wasteful when we all know what it’s used for. 

Eco conscious companies, such as Who Gives a Crap and Cheeky Panda, aim to combat this wasteful industry by using bamboo. 

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Who Gives a Crap has a variety of products. These include recycled bamboo and bamboo-sugarcane blended toilet paper. Their bamboo products are produced in China. Then they’re shipped to warehouses in Australia from where they’re shipped to the UK. 

Who Gives a Crap claim that there would be no significant environmental benefits if production were moved to Australia. 

toilet paper

That may be true, but should we buy into all this global shipping? Especially as there are already companies, such as Ecoleaf, which produce 100% recycled toilet paper in UK based factories.

Is bamboo eco friendly when it comes to what we wipe with? Bamboo toilet paper certainly sounds like an eco friendly solution. And it’s better than wiping our backsides with virgin tree fibres. But we should consider the environmental impact of shipping from Asia to the UK.

How Can We Maintain Bamboo Sustainability?

Unprocessed bamboo is a sustainable alternative to timber and steel. We can maintain bamboo’s sustainability by using it for furniture, flooring and utensils.

It’s true that bamboo is very lightweight. Importing it has a smaller carbon footprint than importing heavier materials like wood. 

That said, we have sustainable FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) timber plantations in the UK. Some of which also sell reclaimed or recycled wood. 

Before we import ‘eco friendly’ products from the other side of the globe, we should consider going local. Look out for recycled or FSC woods and papers which have been produced in the UK. Then brush, build or wipe knowing you’re being as sustainable as you can be!

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