When my daughter was about three years old we drove past a factory pumping a white plume of smoke out a chimney stack. “Look, a cloud factory!” she called out so sweetly. “No, my darling, that’s just air pollution,” I replied.
Ok, not really. She did think it was a cloud factory, but I didn’t have the heart or the energy to explain air pollution and climate change on our way to Grandma's house. Besides, I figured she should be at least five before I share our inevitable doom and break her little heart.
While much of our air pollution does come from factories, they’re not the whimsical, fluffy cloud creators we would like them to be. Our poor air quality is caused by chemicals and burning fossil fuels. It’s harming humans, animals, and the environment every day. Fortunately, there are a lot of changes we can make to reduce and reverse our poor air quality starting with our favorite little plant, bamboo.
Causes of Air Pollution
Air pollution includes anything in the air that is poisonous or causes harm. Dangerous particles can enter our air when we burn coal, oil, and wood. Factory production, vehicle exhaust fumes, and just living in the modern era all contribute to air pollution. Contaminants can also end up in our air when we use pesticides in our yards or on farmland.
Not so fun fact – air pollution started thousands of years ago when indoor fires were the main source of heat. The chimney is thought to be one of the first signs of humans improving indoor air quality way back in the 12th century. While modern conveniences have made our lives easier, advancements in technology have led to an exponential increase in air pollution around the world.
The top 5 industries that produce the most air pollution, including carbon emissions, are all tied to our modern way of living.
- Energy: This includes everything from the oil and coal needed to produce plastic to the electricity you use to charge your phone. Add it together and energy accounts for 30% of greenhouse gasses.
- Transportation: Another 20% of carbon emissions come from passenger and commercial planes, trains, ships, and vehicles. Almost half of this is from passenger road vehicles that rely on petroleum-based oil.
- Agriculture: The increase in farming to meet our food demand, especially meat and dairy, makes up another 13-18% of emissions. This includes everything from clearing lands and storing manure, to processing and transporting products.
- Fashion: One of the most wasteful industries, textiles account for 10% of total carbon emissions and that number is on the rise. From the intense production process of clothing to the chemicals and pollutants released when items sit in landfills, the fashion industry is quickly moving to the top of this list.
- Food Retail: Consider the amount of plastic used to store and sell food and the amount of food that’s wasted across the globe. Combining this with the transportation of food to various regions and the size of our carbon footprint would make even a Yeti cringe.
Impact of Air Pollution
Air pollution is more than just a smoggy haze disrupting your Instagram pic of the LA skyline. Changes in our air quality directly impact the health of animals and people.
In humans, air pollution leads to long-term lung damage and diseases like lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. It continues to be a leading cause of death, even more than alcohol use, malnutrition, and physical inactivity. Poor air quality reduces life expectancy and the World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die as a result of air pollution every year.
Wildlife is also directly affected by air pollution. Not only can animals face respiratory problems from breathing in heavy metals and other toxins, but pollution and rising temperatures damage their habitats and decrease their food supply.
Pollution in the air can change sunlight levels and limit plant growth wildlife depend on for survival. And the impact is not limited to the air. Air pollution causes acid rain which pollutes rivers and streams animals depend on for food and water.
Even if you live in an area that seems to have relatively clear air, land, and water, air pollution still affects you and will affect all of us for generations to come due to our changing climate.
The Link Between Air Pollution and Climate Change
Polar bears have become the face of climate change because their habitats and food supply are shrinking so quickly. About ⅔ of polar bears could be extinct by 2050 as the arctic ice melts. The ice is melting because the climate is changing and the climate is changing because of air pollution.
To help explain, I’d first like to give a quick science lesson about the difference between weather and climate. You probably have one weird uncle who is constantly trying to “debunk” global warming because it’s so cold outside! How can the earth be heating up when there are three feet of snow on the ground? Well, Uncle Dave, you’re talking about two different things.
Weather is the short-term changes in the atmosphere that happen every day. The weather can change within days, hours, or minutes. This is what your meteorologist is reporting on the 5:00 news.
Climate refers to what the weather is like over long periods in different regions. This includes what the weather is like in different seasons or how much rain or snow an area usually gets. Climate is the average temperature, humidity, and precipitation usually looked at over 30 years.
Greenhouse gases trap the heat from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere warming the earth’s temperature. Currently, the earth is heating more quickly than in the past changing the climate of different regions. The higher temperatures cause changes in weather patterns leading to extreme storms, droughts, and snowfall. This is considered climate change.
Higher temperatures from climate change lead to more evaporation and drier soil. This can cause fewer crops to grow or even cause wildfires. The increased evaporation leads to more moisture in the atmosphere. This creates more intense storms including larger amounts of snow in freezing temperatures. Rising sea levels from melting ice lead to more flooding and the warmer ocean temperatures cause additional storms to form.
Changing weather patterns can devastate a region either through immediate disasters like fires and floods or long-term effects like food availability. All species rely on each other for survival so losing one creates an extinction domino effect for other species, including humans.
The climate change and air quality connection is a vicious circle. Air pollution causes climate change and climate change decreases the quality of the air we breathe.
How Bamboo Can Improve Air Quality
If greenhouse gases are causing warmer temperatures and warmer temperatures lead to climate change, the way to fight climate change is to reduce greenhouse gases. Bamboo is known to do just that by reducing carbon emissions, replacing fossil fuels, and protecting forests.
Bamboo Absorbs Carbon
The biggest benefit to growing bamboo is that it’s a carbon sink. The bamboo plant absorbs 35% more greenhouse gases than trees and can store harmful CO2 in its root system. It also produces more oxygen than trees which helps to balance out the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Because bamboo is fast growing, it can be used as a pollution filter in as few as three years instead of 25 years like trees. Pollution filters collect and absorb short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and methane. Pollutants like these aren’t in our atmosphere for as long as CO2, but are responsible for 45% of global warming. Having a fast-growing plant that absorbs more carbon will help us take action quickly and slow our pace toward irreversible damage.
Bamboo Can Replace Fossil Fuels
Bamboo can replace and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in two ways. First, it can be used as fuel by being converted into gas or pellets for heat and electricity. The bamboo plant can be ground up, treated with enzymes, and fermented to become an ethanol alternative.
It can also replace plastic and metal in everything from home decor to construction materials. This reduces the need for oil to create plastic and waste in our landfills because products made from bamboo are typically biodegradable and compostable.
Bamboo Reduces Deforestation
Unlike trees and other crops, bamboo can grow in poor soil conditions in otherwise unusable areas like hillsides and desolate farmland. Farmers can plant it without sacrificing healthy soil or clear-cutting forests. Because it grows so quickly, bamboo can be harvested multiple times over 30 years so there’s no need to cut down hardwood trees to make space for bamboo farms. The trees can remain in place to absorb carbon and provide homes for wildlife while the bamboo absorbs extra carbon.
Bamboo Regenerates Without Pesticides
Another benefit to bamboo is that it naturally regenerates itself after harvest and can be grown without pesticides. Heavy machinery isn’t necessary during or after harvest saving harmful emissions from the air. The natural properties of the bamboo plant allow farmers to grow it without adding chemical pesticides and fertilizers which end up in our air and water.
When we look back at the top five industries that produce the most air pollution, bamboo can improve them all. It can be used as an alternative energy source, it cuts down on vehicle emissions (no need for heavy machinery to grow or harvest), it can be used as a sustainable fabric, and it’s an eco-friendly alternative to plastic.
How You Can Help Improve Our Air Quality
While it’s unlikely we’ll completely stop polluting the air with our industrial way of life, there are certainly ways to reduce it.
To start, consider your energy use. Your dad wasn’t wrong to make you put a nickel in a jar every time you left a light on. Not only does energy cost you extra dollars, but it’s also the leading cause of greenhouse gases. Unplug your appliances when you’re not using them, only run your washer, dryer, and dishwasher when they’re full, and keep your home at a moderate temperature. These things may not seem like they impact the air in your home, but they do have an effect on the atmosphere around you.
Next up, reduce your transportation impact. This includes taking public transportation, grouping your driving trips, and shopping local. Consider buying from your neighborhood farmer's market to cut down on the impact of food transportation.
While 2-day shipping is super convenient, having all those trucks on the road leads to a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions. One study found that shipping and return of products in 2020 accounted for 37% of total emissions. Global pandemic or not, our shopping shouldn’t be destroying the planet.
And finally, be a conscious consumer. When you’re shopping for clothing, home decor, or any other goods, consider the environmental impact. Choose natural materials that are compostable or biodegradable whenever possible. Look for products that are durable and long-lasting so you’re not replacing them too quickly. Shop with brands that produce ethically and sustainably. You can even look for green certifications to be sure they’re supporting the environment with eco-friendly business practices. Spoiler alert- bamboo is one material that checks all these boxes.
Bamboo Can Help Us All Breathe a Little Easier
I’m a firm believer that small steps can make the biggest difference. Choosing bamboo instead of plastic the next time you shop will save our planet from harmful greenhouse gases and an overwhelming amount of carbon dioxide. Every item you own has the potential to harm or help our environment. Consider the impact from production to disposal. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at our tips on introducing bamboo into your lifestyle.