Is Bamboo Sustainable? Bamboo Fabric & Material Rundown

A figure peeking out from behind a lush bamboo forest.

Everyone is obsessed with bamboo, and it seems like it offers us a way to replace nearly everything in our lives with a plant based alternative.

Do these seemingly endless benefits come with a price?

We’re going to take a look into the sustainability of bamboo, as well as any questionable aspects of the industry.

And knowing the nitty-gritty details of the environmental impacts of bamboo may come in handy when checking out different sustainable products, as it’s a very popular raw material.

This strange and functional plant actually has quite a history of usefulness, so let’s start there.

Was bamboo always useful?

First of all, bamboo is a fast-growing grass – it’s not a tree or shrub.

Bamboo is originally from tropical and subtropical climates where it’s one of the most abundant plants around; and nowadays it’s found growing all over the world.

bamboo forest

It grows all over Africa, South America, Asia, and Australia, and can even be found in Europe and North America in some areas; with over 1400 species of bamboo that we know of, this unique species of grass has the ability to form vast forest ecosystems.

In many countries where it grows, it has significant economic value for countless different applications. It’s used as a building material, in household items like bowls and cups, as irrigation, and even within musical instruments.

Similar to other crops like hemp, bamboo can also be blended and spun into threads and fabrics used by sustainable clothing brands, and its use has skyrocketed in the past few years.

Is bamboo a sustainable material?

bamboo harvesting

This versatile plant has some incredible physical properties that make it particularly useful to these communities, in no particular order:

  • It can grow one meter per day, which makes it a quickly renewing resource
  • It has a tensile strength similar to steel, making it valuable for construction
  • It’s lightweight – bamboo is hollow and can be carried in bulk by hand
  • It can be carved, pulped, pressed, and transformed easily
  • It grows all year round

All of these properties add to its range of uses, which is why we’ve been using it for thousands of years; but there are even more appealing attributes driving all the interest there is for making use of this plant.

As the tallest of grasses, bamboo reaches its maximum height very quickly, which makes it appealing in terms of land usage and renewability. This means that bamboo has the potential to regenerate important forested lands in its native ranges, if managed well.

Forests of bamboo can also be planted alongside other native plants to create and promote biodiverse habitats; which isn’t something to scoff at – as solutions to future climate tipping points like threats to our forest ecosystems and biodiversity loss are needed right now!

red panda eating bamboo

And in terms of sustainability, it’s a majorly overlooked source of carbon sequestration and might be of significant aid in that regard, similar to hemp.

Not only that, but planting bamboo can decrease topsoil erosion and help protect other crops from soil degradation, and the grass itself makes both a good biochar and can be used as a source of biofuel.

biochar: a useful type of charcoal created by burning biomass and added to soils

Bamboo also has aesthetic value – as a substitute for timber, bamboo can make attractive and effective buildings and furnishings; with an extra layer of protection as it also has antimicrobial properties.

You can eat it, too. Bamboo shoots are a low-calorie, fiber packed snack full of useful micronutrients.

edible bamboo shoots

All of these benefits stimulate local economies, and the plant is already responsible for much of the timber trade in tropical and subtropical countries.

As demand increases globally, the conditions for many of these communities growing, harvesting, and selling bamboo could improve drastically. Overall, bamboo’s properties as a renewable low-carbon resource are promising and have already led to some bold claims that are worth looking into.

Some of these, it seems, are true. Others, perhaps not so much.

Are bamboo products eco friendly?

Nearly every single sustainable brand nowadays really likes bamboo. It seems like there’s no limit to the creative uses for bamboo, and everyone tends to prefer it over plastic.

And it makes sense – bamboo just feels better to use than plastic.

The issues with plastic (like how plastic recycling is a complete scam) are too numerous to cover here; and personally I’m all for innovative bamboo materials that have the potential to replace and reduce plastic use.

Even compared to bioplastics – a promising “green” sector of the plastics industry – bamboo stands out as a material if it’s used in a sustainable manner. With that being said, let’s look at a few common bamboo products from multiple perspectives, because the sustainability of bamboo products isn’t always very clear.

Bamboo toothbrushes

When you take the plunge and dive into the plastic-free, zero waste world, bamboo toothbrushes are often the first thing you’ll come across.

And it seems straightforward: replace a disposable plastic toothbrush with bamboo and bam – sustainability, right?

Obviously it’s not that simple, and there are quite a few details to think about:

  • Are recycled plastic or bamboo toothbrushes better?
  • Are the bristles nylon or bioplastic?
  • Where can you buy bamboo or recycled plastic brushes?

I could go on and on about topics like this (and if you’ve got time, check out these guides on sustainable toothbrushes and electric toothbrushes)

Take it from someone who spends way too much time researching these brands – the companies with the most extensive sustainable product lines are selling bamboo brushes (usually).

So if you want to support these brands, you may end up with a couple of bamboo toothbrushes, as they don’t stock plastic ones.

Bamboo clothing

Sustainable bamboo is big in the world of fashion, and most brands nowadays are using this beloved grass, or at least blending it with other materials.

Like we went over before, bamboo can be pulped and processed into fibers and thread either mechanically or with the help of special enzymes; neither process destroys the cellulose structure and results in soft, lightweight, and breathable clothes made of bamboo.

Bamboo clothes are often used as an example of a future including a more sustainable fashion industry or as an alternative to cotton fabric or nylon and other synthetics.

But, there are some worrying facts emerging.

The biggest issue with bamboo clothing is that the fabric itself is often actually made from rayon – a bioplastic cellulose fiber – not raw bamboo fiber. And because of this, the highly sought-after antibacterial properties aren’t present.

Bamboo fabric (like rayon) requires a lot of water, energy, and other resources to manufacture, especially in cases like bamboo silk production, which is different from how silk is made normally. A lot of processing goes into making the bamboo fabrics workable, and some of the chemical treatments are environmentally hazardous.

Like cotton, bamboo fibers are often bleached too; so as a fabric it’s likely that hemp wins out across the board when it comes to environmental impacts.

The point isn’t that bamboo clothing is bad, it’s that being aware of potential issues with any sustainable material should always be a part of the discussion.

Bamboo toilet paper

Most brands of toilet paper found in supermarkets are made from virgin wood pulp – which means a tree has to be cut down to make it. Recycled toilet paper is a good alternative, and bamboo toilet paper is often put forward as another, perhaps even better one.

Bamboo paper products are usually completely biodegradable and recyclable, and will be from a far more renewable source than standard timber-based paper, but is it more sustainable than other alternatives available?

bamboo toilet paper

Recycled paper should be a priority, of course, as humanity isn’t exactly known for underproducing goods ; and it’s also likely to be more environmentally friendly than bamboo.

The two main reasons for this are that it can be produced locally anywhere instead of growing only in tropical countries,and it doesn’t require new land to provide the raw materials.

If you don’t buy bamboo toilet paper, make sure the rolls you’re using aren’t uncertified rainforest products, and are labeled by a sustainable forestry organization.

Bamboo straws

Some companies are offering bamboo straws as an alternative to plastic or metal; these are designed to be reusable, but usually come at a higher cost over steel and glass options in terms of emissions.

In terms of CO2, close to 95% of the impact of bamboo straws is due to transporting the straws from places like Indonesia to all corners of the globe, which brings the total emissions to nearly 30 times those of disposable paper straws.

So if you’re a heavy straw user, you may want to consider using a metal straw instead (which is what I use), as they should last a lifetime if taken care of. Using single use plastic straws isn’t the answer, but it makes sense to be realistic about the best uses for bamboo.

Bamboo concrete

Concrete’s low tensile strength means it has to be reinforced with steel rebar, which corrodes and degrades over time and results in unwanted strain within concrete structures.

While traditional uses of bamboo as a building material are common, some research suggests bamboo could be used as a concrete composite to replace steel as both a superior structural material and a more sustainable one.

These plans are still being developed, but there’s good potential for decreasing the weight and cost of buildings, which means an expansion of more sustainable cities in the future.

However, it could also lead to a rapid increase in demand for bamboo, an industry that isn’t known for its ethical sourcing practices (which we’ll cover below).

How does bamboo impact people and the environment?

Like any natural material, bamboo sustainability is determined heavily by what it’s replacing and how well it’s regulated as a resource.

In general, it seems as though the less processing bamboo undergoes the better it will be for the environment. But for some items, just transporting bamboo from its source is enough to negate a lot of the benefits it could provide.

Bamboo deforestation is almost certainly going to be a by-product of increased farming, and as it becomes more popular, incentives increase to clear more space to grow it.

bamboo drying racks

This is something that may slip under the radar for a while since, as a grass, bamboo is often not considered with the same scrutiny as something like a tree crop may be.

Vast bamboo monoculture farms are just as bad for wildlife habitats as palm oil or soybean plantations, so a rapid and widespread switch to bamboo without appropriate regulations will likely be destructive.

If sourced from unsustainable forestry practices, bamboo can’t really be considered environmentally friendly. Likewise, if it’s highly processed using harmful chemicals, it can easily pollute clean water, air, and soil.

One less clear aspect of the growing bamboo industry is who is actually profiting from all of the economic opportunities touted by manufacturers and vendors of bamboo products.

The bamboo industry clearly has great potential and value, but it’s also a new opportunity for exploitation and unethical labor practices. In Burma, there are reports of children as young as 10 working on bamboo farms, and in some areas forced child labor makes up 40% of the workforce.

Most products you’re able to purchase are most likely associated with unethical businesses in one way or another, but more public awareness of these issues needs to be achieved if things are ever going to change.

So, the wave of interest in bamboo is a mixture of potential, optimism, lies, and greenwashing (like most things nowadays).

And while there is a significant amount of potential for bamboo as a renewable resource – especially as GMO technology advances allow for reductions in pesticide use – the reality is that it needs to be watched very closely.

Ultimately, most companies will focus on promoting products in a way that resonates with you, even if those claims are false; so stay vigilant and call them out when possible.

Final thoughts

Bamboo has so much potential as a plant based replacement for much of the single use plastics we use and abuse everyday.

So tackling the issues within the industry right now may be the key to guaranteeing bamboo a sustainable future.

What are your favorite bamboo products and uses?

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