Can Bamboo Help Clean up the Top Polluting Industries?

Bamboo sustainable alternative; hand holding clear orb in front of trees

I recently read a study by Eco Jungle that talked about how air, water, and soil pollution is at an all-time high. Burning fossil fuels, processing chemicals, and plastic waste have led to endangered plants and animals and premature death in humans.

Based on Eco Jungle’s review methods, the top 5 most polluting industries in 2022 were:

  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Agriculture
  • Fashion
  • Food retail

The biggest factor for these was the amount of carbon emissions produced. Unfortunately, companies want to produce at a faster and cheaper rate which creates an amount of carbon in the atmosphere the Earth can’t handle.

In This Article
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    An Unbalanced Carbon Cycle

    The natural carbon cycle keeps the planet balanced. One group of plants and animals absorb the carbon another group produces in a circle of carbon offsetting. The overuse of fossil fuels has increased carbon output to the point that the earth can now only absorb about 40% of the carbon produced. Unabsorbed carbon stays in the air, traps the sun’s heat, and causes global warming.

    The impacts of global warming have been widely shared. Warmer temperatures change our weather patterns leading to more wildfires and severe storms. The hotter temperatures also create droughts which affect crop growth and food supply. We are creating irreversible damage to the planet we depend on to survive.

    The Effects of Air and Water Pollution

    Our air and water are also affected by the transportation and production of goods. Every year millions of chemicals are poured into our waterways and end up in our drinking water. Factories and vehicles rely on burning fossil fuels that pollute our air.

    These practices harm our health as we breathe contaminated air or even ingest affected plants, animals, and water. Every year 8.9 million people die from air pollution and water pollution has been linked to 200 chemicals found in the cord blood of newborn babies.

    How Bamboo Can Be Used in the Top Polluting Industries

    Bamboo has been called one of the most sustainable plants in the world. It grows more quickly than trees and can be made into virtually anything. The poles are often used in construction, broken down into fibers to replace plastic, or processed into textiles. The’s no need for fertilizers or pesticides which saves our air and water from toxins that find their way into our food supply.

    So how do we use the most sustainable plant on Earth in a way that will benefit us all? Let’s start by looking at how bamboo can be used as a sustainable alternative in the top polluting industries.

    Energy

    The energy industry tops the list as the most polluting industry because 80% of our energy is produced by burning oil, coal, and gas. Over half of our total fossil fuel use has been in the last 25 years. According to a 2015 study, at our current rates, we have enough oil and natural gas to last about 50 years and enough coal to last about 100 years. If we don’t move to clean energy sources by then there may not be enough to sustain the global population.

    Bamboo as a Fuel Alternative

    Bamboo can be used as an alternative to fuel to power our homes and communities. It’s an ideal biofuel because it grows quickly and renews itself. Even when the bamboo is harvested, the root system stays active and grows new shoots of bamboo almost immediately.

    While wood is considered a renewable resource, it’s not a viable solution to replace fuel because of the amount of time it takes trees to grow. One tree can take over 30 years to mature whereas a stalk of bamboo is fully grown in 5-7 years and can be harvested many times during its lifetime. With the increase in deforestation we’ve seen in recent years, we are much more likely to run out of trees than bamboo.

    Using Bamboo to Create Energy

    The first bamboo power plant opened in Japan in 2015 and became fully operational in 2019. The plant burns bamboo to boil water and create steam. The steam is used to turn the blades of turbines and create energy. Scientists have learned how to burn bamboo more efficiently and the plant is on track to replace fuel with about 8,800 metric tons of bamboo every year. Studies show that just two poles of bamboo can provide 24 hours of electricity for one family. Until we can harness solar energy for all our needs, bamboo is an excellent replacement for oil and coal.

    Transportation

    Transportation is another of the top 5 most polluting industries as billions of passenger and cargo vehicles are used each day. Each of these vehicles produces about one pound of CO2 per mile. Alternative fuel has been researched since the early 1900s and the concept became more popular throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately, we haven’t developed a renewable fuel alternative that’s less expensive or easier to produce than the oil and gas we’re used to.

    Reliance on Oil and Food Crops as Fuel

    You’re likely familiar with ethanol fuel that you can find at most gas stations. The first version of this corn-based fuel alternative was created in 1826 but didn’t become widely used until the 1970s. This alternative does help reduce our dependency on oil but isn’t a perfect substitute.

    The downside of corn-based ethanol is we are using a valuable food crop that could be used to feed our growing population. About 40% of all corn is used to create ethanol and scientists currently claim the population might be too big for the Earth to feed by 2050.

    Bamboo as Non-food Biomass Fuel for

    Transportation

    Bamboo has become a popular idea for non-food biomass fuel because it grows quickly in less-than-ideal soil conditions. Using it will help reduce carbon emissions and keep crops available for food production.

    The process of breaking down the bamboo plant is difficult so scientists continue to study it as a sustainable alternative. Hopefully one day we‘ll see a little bamboo symbol at the gas pump and know they've found a solution.

    Bamboo as a Replacement for Steel in Transportation

    Another way that bamboo can impact the transportation industry is by replacing steel in some vehicles. The process involves chemical processing of the bamboo to soften it and expose the bamboo fibers. Then the bamboo is heated to remove the water and maintain the structure. This process doubles the tensile strength and triples the toughness compared to natural bamboo.

    While there’s still a lot of research to be done, materials scientist Dr. Liangbing Hu has studied using bamboo as a replacement for steel. He believes it could be used for cargo trucks, railroad cars, or even planes. Bamboo is about six times lighter than steel making these large vehicles much more fuel efficient.

    Agriculture

    When thinking about bamboo and agriculture, my first thought is how it protects lands from soil erosion and can grow in poor soil conditions. This helps in rural villages where farmland is hard to come by and the loss of a field can devastate a family for years. Bamboo is an excellent crop for supporting rural farmers, but it also balances the environmental impact of large-scale factory farming.

    Greenhouse Gases From Large-Scale Farming

    Agriculture is a top polluting industry because of the greenhouse gases produced, especially by cattle farms. It's estimated that agriculture creates 19-29% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, mostly oxide and methane. Cows naturally produce methane, but manure storage, feed processing, and transportation all contribute to higher levels of emissions.

    With the growing population relying on cows for meat and dairy, deforestation to create farmland increases the amount of carbon dioxide while destroying the plants and animals we need to absorb it.

    Bamboo to Offset Carbon Emissions From Agriculture

    While we can’t use bamboo to replace the crops or cattle we rely on for food, we can use it to offset the increased amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Bamboo has been called a carbon sink because it can hold almost double the amount of carbon in its root system as trees. While it is absorbing more carbon, it’s also producing 30-35% more oxygen than an equal area of trees.

    Planting bamboo in abandoned farmland or on hillsides can offset greenhouse gases without taking land we need for crops.

    Fashion

    The Problem With Cotton

    The fashion industry pollutes through chemicals used for growing cotton and processing fabric. Cotton crops are considered to be some of the dirtiest plants because, while only being grown on 3% of farmland, they use 16% of our total pesticides. About 75% of all clothing contains at least some cotton so it’s almost impossible to avoid it altogether.

    On top of the enormous about of pesticides used, cotton uses a significant amount of water. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 713 gallons of water are needed to make one cotton t-shirt. Water is also used in the chemical production of fabrics. EcoWatch estimates the textile industry has contaminated 70% of rivers and lakes with over 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater.

    Fast Fashion Is Costly to Our Environment

    After clothing hits the shelves, the fast fashion cycle creates waste as cheap, “disposable” clothing is tossed in the trash. It’s estimated 85% of all textiles end up in the landfill every year and take over 200 years to decompose. Cheap clothing is some of the most costly to our environment.

    Sustainable Fashion From Bamboo

    Bamboo is an ideal solution for the fashion industry because it grows so quickly that it doesn’t need any fertilizers or pesticides. It also only uses about ⅓ of the water as cotton and doesn’t need to be replanted when harvested. While bamboo does need chemical processing to create the softer viscose material, sustainable fashion companies use a closed-loop system to contain the water and chemicals to be reused. At the end of its lifecycle, bamboo viscose is biodegradable as long as no toxic dyes have been added during production.

    Many shoppers claim that bamboo is softer than cotton, likely due to the naturally round fibers. The result is a comfortable and naturally cooling fabric used for bamboo sheets, towels, clothing, and more.

    Food Retail

    The food retail industry creates a ton of CO2 from transporting food and uses an incredible amount of oil to create packaging. After the food is used, millions of pounds of plastic pollution end up in the landfill.

    For many years it was believed 9% of all plastic was actually recycled. Unfortunately, scientists at Greenpeace have recently updated their estimation to less than 5%. In the US alone, food containers and packaging are responsible for more than 82 million tons of waste each year. This makes plastic packaging one of the largest contributors to plastic waste. Grocers are unlikely to change because plastic packaging makes things less expensive.

    “Wish Cycling” Reduces Plastic Recycling

    Part of the problem is “wish cycling.” Consumers toss plastics into their recycling bins with good intentions and hope they can be recycled. If the material can't be recycled, it may contaminate the plastics that can be unless it’s sorted out. Sorting is challenging and costly so recycling centers will most likely send the whole load to the landfill instead. A good way to avoid this is to understand the recycling codes printed on each plastic container.

    Global Warming and Microplastics

    The plastic that isn’t recycled ends up sitting in landfills or our lakes and oceans for hundreds of years. It breaks apart into smaller pieces called microplastics that are eaten by marine animals or even inhaled by humans. Researchers have found microplastics in human lung tissue, blood, and even breast milk.

    The problem with plastic is more than just what ends up in our oceans. It starts with the production of plastic which uses 8-10% of our total oil supply. Burning fossil fuels like oil is the largest contributor to global warming. Our reliance on plastic is causing irreversible damage to the earth.

    Bamboo as an Alternative to Single-Use Plastic

    The durable bamboo plant makes a great replacement for single-use plastic, especially packaging. Bamboo doesn’t need petroleum for processing but is instead boiled and shaped into packaging, flatware, and even straws. When used for food packaging at stores and restaurants it is often able to be composted and will biodegrade in as little as 2 months. Bamboo packaging is also just as strong as plastic so it will hold up to even your biggest order of takeout and may be able to be reused when you’re done.

    Bamboo Is Proven to Be a Sustainable and Lasting Resource

    Bamboo has a long history of use in all these sectors – long before any of them were big enough to be considered global industries. Ancient tribes used bamboo for fuel, for building canoes, and even as storage and decorative accessories. While it’s growing in popularity, bamboo is not new to the planet and has proven to be a reliable and sustainable solution for many of our needs. We just need to be open to new ideas.

    Who knows, maybe one day we’ll see a bamboo cargo truck running on bamboo biofuel bringing bamboo uniforms to happy employees of a bamboo packaging plant powered by bamboo energy.

    Making the shift to sustainable alternatives can be overwhelming, but has never been more important. If you’re looking to make changes toward sustainability, learn how to introduce bamboo into your lifestyle!