You’ve heard the hype and know we’re big fans of bamboo for just about everything. Bamboo can be made into a variety of materials and can replace everything from paper to steel. But is bamboo really sustainable?
The short answer is yes, if the materials are sourced responsibly and produced with the full lifecycle of the product in mind. Bamboo materials have various levels of sustainability so it’s important to know how bamboo is processed for each industry.
Bamboo is an ideal choice for fabric because it’s soft, absorbent & antimicrobial. Bamboo fibers are naturally smooth and absorb 70% more moisture than cotton without giving you that not-so-fresh scent. Having moisture pulled away from the skin makes it a great option for socks, underwear, and any kind of apparel you don’t want to feel sweaty in.
I especially love a bamboo alternative to single-use items like cotton rounds or diapers. These alternatives can be reused or are biodegradable and have less impact on the environment during production.
How is Bamboo Fabric Made?
It’s strange to think a hard stalk of bamboo can be turned into some of the softest and most absorbent material around.
Bamboo stalks are cut and processed either mechanically or chemically to separate the cellulose from the fiber. The cellulose is turned into yarn and woven into fabric that can be used for anything from apparel to bedding!
The more sustainable option is mechanically-processed bamboo linen (or bast fiber) which is made using a process called mercerization. The plant is crushed up and the natural enzymes are used to create the thread. Mercerization uses fewer chemicals but creates a rougher fabric. The process is also more labor intensive making it more expensive than other bamboo fabrics.
Bamboo rayon is a widely used bamboo fabric because it’s much softer and less expensive than bamboo linen. It’s made using a chemical process where plant fibers are dissolved into chemical mixtures and filtered until they congeal. The resulting material can be woven into fabric.
Is Bamboo Fabric a Sustainable Solution?
Compared to cotton, bamboo is a much more sustainable crop. It uses ⅓ less water to grow and doesn’t need fertilizers or pesticides. Bamboo has a natural pesticide called bamboo kun to protect itself from pests and fungi.
Cotton, however, needs a significant amount of pesticides to fight off insects. To put it in perspective, cotton only grows on 2.5% of the world’s farmland, but uses 16% of all pesticides. Organic cotton is a better alternative to traditional cotton but is currently only 0.1 percent of all content produced in the world.
Bamboo is also preferred over synthetic fabrics for the environment. It’s best when bamboo lyocell or viscose is made from a closed-loop system where chemicals and water are recycled and never released into the environment. Our friends at Cozy Earth use a closed-loop system to make incredibly soft bamboo products that are eco-friendly.
Because of the processing that bamboo fabric has to go through to become rayon, the most sustainable option is to use bamboo linen when possible.
You may be most familiar with bamboo used as an alternative to wood. It’s considered an alternative because bamboo is actually a grass. So just like when you mow your lawn and the grass grows back, you can harvest bamboo and it will replenish itself.
The construction industry has been relying on bamboo for centuries because of its strength and low weight. Bamboo has greater tensile strength than steel and is much less expensive to produce.
Bamboo also withstands compression better than concrete. It can support 52,000 pounds of pressure per square inch making us wonder how strong a panda's teeth really are…
Many countries prefer bamboo because the stalks are fire- and earthquake-resistant. In addition to their incredible strength, the stalks bend in wind, unlike hardwood that’s more likely to break. Bamboo can also withstand temperatures up to 4,000 degrees C (7,232 F).
How is Bamboo Used for Construction?
Since bamboo grows in tall stalks, bamboo strips are easy to create. The height of the stalk grows up to 100 times the width, which makes it great for framing, scaffolding, and flooring.
Strips of bamboo are compressed and crisscrossed for added strength. It can be easily split, shaped, or bent to create just about any structure needed for construction. For long-lasting materials, bamboo is typically treated with saltwater or heat to protect it from cracking, insects, and rot.
Design trends like bamboo flooring and fencing are becoming more popular as homeowners recognize the need for sustainable housing. A recent study from E.ON Energy found that 89% of prospective buyers want sustainable homes. Bamboo is an eco-friendly option that gives them a high-end look.
Even if you’re not in the construction biz, you can still benefit from the strength and durability of bamboo. Whether you just need a stable coffee table to hold your morning latte (and lazy cats) or a new desk for your work-from-home lifestyle, bamboo furniture is stylish and eco-friendly.
Is Bamboo a Sustainable Alternative to Tree Wood?
Bamboo is thought to be a great alternative to tree wood because it grows and regenerates so quickly. Bamboo can grow large enough to be harvested within 3 to 5 years, unlike trees that take over 20 years to mature.
Groves of bamboo rarely need replanting because the same plant can be harvested over 10 times. The dropped leaves also help it to regenerate naturally. Sadly, trees die when they’re cut down and even if they’re replanted, you’ll be waiting decades to replace the lumber you used.
The long root systems dig deep to find nutrients other plants miss. The roots bind together helping to strengthen the foundation of the soil and preventing further erosion. Once the bamboo restores the land, other plants can begin to grow.
When planting bamboo, farmers need to be mindful of the variety they choose. Bamboo can be invasive and quickly spread into more land than intended.
Bamboo can help us preserve our forests while providing excellent building materials. We need less space for bamboo because we can harvest it so much more frequently than trees. And bamboo absorbs five times more carbon and produces 35 times more oxygen than a similar-sized stand of trees.
Bamboo as an Alternative to Plastic
It should come as no surprise that a natural material like bamboo is a great alternative to plastic. Plastic is popular because it’s inexpensive and can be molded into any form. Plastic is often touted as being reusable, but 50% of plastic is never reused or recycled. Over 17 billion pounds of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
Creating plastic is also harmful because it requires fossil fuels leading to carbon emissions. Alternatively, bamboo is considered a carbon sink because of its ability to absorb and store carbon in its roots. Unlike trees, bamboo doesn’t die when cut so the carbon is not released during harvest.
Bamboo is biodegradable and compostable. When you’re finished with your item you can bury it in your garden and pat yourself on the back for being so responsible. Plastic on the other hand can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade and is the leading cause of mass pollution worldwide.
How Is Bamboo Used to Replace Plastic?
This is where bamboo really shines in my opinion. Bamboo can be used in place of just about any plastic from drawer organizers to keyboards. It's smooth and durable and, let’s be honest, looks a whole lot better than plastic.
The production process is pretty simple. Bamboo stalks are shaved down to small pieces, soaked, and molded into the shape of the item. The actual material needs very few changes when making products, unlike plastic which has to be created before it can be made into useful items.
Bamboo is also inexpensive so when compared to the cost of the billion single-use items we discard every day. Investing in a bamboo alternative is a financial no-brainer.
Bamboo is often used as an eco-friendly option for toilet paper or paper towels. Because paper typically comes from wood, bamboo paper products are processed similarly. The bamboo plant is broken down into fibers and mixed with a solution that turns them into bamboo pulp. The pup is soaked, pressed, and formed into the paper and finally dried out.
Is Bamboo More Sustainable Than Traditional Paper?
Most traditional paper is made from virgin wood pulp which has over three times the impact on climate change compared to other options.
The average American uses 140 rolls of toilet paper per year which means we quite literally flush 27,000 trees every day. Fortunately, bamboo grows faster and regenerates the plant when the stalks are cut so it can be replenished more easily as we use it. This also means we need less space to grow the bamboo we need compared to trees.
Deforestation is only one of the issues with paper production. Heavy machinery is used to cut down trees leading to water and air pollution. Bamboo products produce 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than products made from 100% virgin forest fiber.
When Is Bamboo Not Sustainable?
We need to be mindful of our consumption of any materials, including bamboo. You may have heard the staggering statistic that 80% of the world’s natural resources are used by only 20% of the population. Overproduction and overconsumption are the biggest factors in climate change. The overuse of fossil fuels and the incredible amount of waste we produce is leading to a predicted 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) increase by 2050.
Bamboo is not more sustainable if it means we need to clear-cut forests to meet demand. It’s also not a great choice if the bamboo used in production is significantly changed with chemicals. Some items use so much glue that they are no longer biodegradable.
So while the plant itself still has many great eco-friendly qualities, some of the environmental benefits are lost at human hands. When you’re shopping, do your research as a responsible citizen. Consider the source of materials and production practices of the company.
You also need to consider how far you’re shipping your items. If you’re buying bamboo flooring and having it shipped across the world, you might be better off using locally sourced reclaimed hardwood.
When reading product descriptions, check for added chemicals or synthetic bamboo which is made from PVC. Some products will need a lot of glue which makes them harder to decompose.
Whether you’re shopping for bamboo or any other eco-friendly option, it’s always best to use what you have and replace only what you need.
Bamboo Is a Better Choice for Sustainability
Bamboo is a very eco-friendly alternative when used responsibly. It grows more quickly than trees, needs less water and no pesticides, and it’s an incredibly strong alternative to many materials.
Shopping for environmentally friendly items is not always black and white. It’s important to stay educated on the best (or better) option available to you. Review a company's website and product descriptions to see if the items are 100% bamboo or what other materials are being used. Fortunately, more laws are being passed to ensure the proper labeling of eco-friendly products.
Ready to make the switch? Start with our favorite swaps to introduce bamboo into your sustainable lifestyle.