The use of bamboo as a building and fabric material has skyrocketed in recent years as society has faced the increasing threat of deforestation. Its woody nature and ability to grow quickly has been touted as an eco friendly alternative, but is this really true? The short answer is yes and no, it’s a mixed bag.
First, the good news. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on the planet, with some species growing up to four feet per day. It takes between three and five years to be ready to harvest, compared to 30-50 years for its hardwood counterparts. It produces more oxygen than a forest of comparable size and prevents erosion. It can grow without pesticides or chemicals. It is totally degradable and regenerates on its own. It is a wonderfully versatile material that can be made into hundreds of products ranging from gorgeous hardwood flooring to sturdy furniture to luxuriously soft towels and clothing fabric.
Now the bad news. While the growth and cultivation of bamboo is very much organic, the manufacturing process that converts it from woody plant to end product is definitely not green. For flooring, for example, bamboo goes through a complex process ranging from steaming under pressure to kiln drying to hot pressing, all of which are very energy-intensive. Additionally, some grades of bamboo flooring use formaldehyde adhesives of unknown quantity.
The creation of bamboo fabric is more disturbing. This organic clothing blog has an excellent article with outstanding detail about the process used in creating clothing fabric. To summarize, while there is an eco friendly manufacturing process that crushes the plant and uses natural enzymes, it is very labor intensive and rarely used. Far more common is chemically manufactured fiber, which “cooks” the bamboo in strong chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, which have been linked to serious health problems. The harsh chemical process turns the bamboo into a viscous solution that is then reconstructed into cellulose fiber for weaving into fabric. While alternative methods are beginning to emerge, this is by far the dominant process–and this fact is obscured by clothing and fabric manufacturers pushing bamboo as an eco friendly fabric. As with other products like mattresses, no objective certification method exists for ensuring that bamboo-based materials are environmentally sound from production to manufacturing.
Bottom line, the use of bamboo is a mixed blessing. As a building material, there is no question that using fast-growing bamboo is far better than using wood from our disappearing forests despite the negatives, although you should look for materials made with formaldehyde-free adhesives. The case for using bamboo fabric items is far less clear given the caustic manufacturing process, and I can’t justify their use personally when far more eco friendly alternatives (like organic cotton) are available–at least until such time as the manufacturing process becomes a lot greener.
Do you know of bamboo products that are verifiably free of the problems mentioned in this article? Please post them in the comments.