Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Hemp and bamboo the ultimate comparison

In the arena of natural alternative resources, two towering crops dominate the field. In some ways strikingly different, but with a great deal in common, hemp and bamboo have each risen to prominence in recent decades. And because of their similarities, the temptation to draw comparisons between hemp and bamboo is often irresistible.

Before launching California’s first all-bamboo boutique in 2006, I helped to open and operate two of California’s first hemp stores back in the early 90s. So I’ve had more conversations about the miracles of hemp, the benefits of bamboo and the dangers of pesticide-rich cotton than just about anybody. And I’ve had the pleasure of handling and using more hemp and bamboo products than most anyone I know.

I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of hearing an astonishing number of misconceptions. But one thing is for sure, I never get tired of talking and writing about it. And when I do, the question always comes up: which one is better?

Hemp or bamboo: Which is better?

Proponents of hemp and bamboo have both made some pretty bold and superlative claims over the years. Of course, I share their enthusiasm. But sometimes these claims wander into the territory of exaggeration.

Any in case, we hear it said that one is a miracle crop, and one can save the planet. Hemp grows like a weed, and yet bamboo is supposed to be the fastest growing plant on earth. So which one is better?

It’s not an easy comparison to make, and I’m generally reluctant to do so. At the same time, it is a question that comes up often. And it can make for some pretty interesting conversation. So let’s have a look at some of the benefits and properties of both hemp and bamboo.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES Ancient History

Before we start splitting hairs and sorting fibers, let’s examine the rich and fascinating history of each plant. I’ve heard it said that cannabis hemp was the first non-food crop to be cultivated by man. And I’ve heard the same claim regarding bamboo.

In fact, both plants are edible—hemp for seed and bamboo for tender young shoots—but this wasn’t the primary reason for their cultivation. Rather, its their versatility and ease of use that made them so desirable.

Like many so many things, hemp and bamboo both originated in China. The same is true of printing, gun powder and Confucianism, but not cotton. But as their uses date back many millennia, its difficult to say which came into widespread use first.

Evidence of hemp yarns and textiles in China traces back to about 5000 BC. And according to Professor Tengwen Long, there are signs of hemp flowers from an archeological site on the Oki Islands dating to 8000 BC.

Bamboo appears to be equally ancient. Asians from the late stone age were probably using bamboo for weapons and building materials several thousand years ago. But if I had to guess, I would think that hunters would have discovered bamboo as the ideal material for spears back when they were still stalking mastodons in the ice age. Long, straight and simple to sharpen. So easy, even a neanderthal could do it! (Can we put that on a t-shirt?)

Either way, it’s not a contest over which came into use first. Clearly, both plants have a long history and played an important part in early human civilization.

Hemp’s Colorful Past

Part of what makes hemp so interesting, or controversial, is its consanguinity with what we call marijuana. While some varieties of cannabis are ideal for material use, to make fibers and textiles, others are cultivated for their psychoactive resin.

Today we refer to the former as hemp, and the latter as marijuana. But originally, feral cannabis plants of Asia had both properties. There was no real distinction. It seems like those from the mountainous regions of India and Afghanistan may have been a bit more resinous. And the cannabis plants from the prairies and grasslands were a bit more fibrous.

As hunters and gatherers became more and more agrarian, they learned to domesticate their crops. As they did so, they selected and cultivated different strains for different characteristics. It was around this time that fibrous hemp and sticky ganja split into their separate branches on the family tree of cannabis.

Even so, the distinction was rarely 100 percent clear. As farmers began cultivating hemp on an industrial scale, using heavier machinery, the absence of resin became very desirable. The sticky stuff would gum up the machinery and slow down production.

Meanwhile, those who favored the THC-rich resin for medicinal and recreational purposes were not consuming the sort of strains we have today. Since the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s, the “domestication” and hybridization of psychoactive cannabis has achieved truly mind-blowing results.

Hemp Prohibition

As you can see, it’s impossible to discuss the history of hemp without digressing into a nuanced exploration of marijuana and its kaleidoscopic side effects. And that requires a further explanation of hemp prohibition, which went into effect in the 1930s.

In 1937, the US government passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively outlawed both hemp and marijuana in one decisive stroke. Reefer madness and other propaganda efforts of the early 20th century convinced lawmakers and the American public of the need to eradicate marijuana. So that was it for cannabis sativa.

But most historians agree that the elimination of an entire industry was no accident. When hemp farms and factories across the country all ceased to operate, it was a great boon to the lumber paper making industry, the burgeoning petrochemical industry and king cotton.

Historical Significance

As far as the comparison between hemp and bamboo, they each have a long history that stretches back into prehistoric times. But hemp’s relationship with marijuana certainly makes it interesting. Depending which side you’re on, this could count in hemp’s favor, or it may count against it.

In any case, it does underscore the need for clarification. The fact is that hemp and marijuana are easy enough to differentiate. Most industrial nations, throughout Asia and Europe, continued growing industrial hemp even while prohibiting marijuana. Regulators in those countries had no difficulty restricting industrial hemp to cannabis varieties with less than 1% THC (the primary psychoactive compound).

Furthermore, many of us feel that hemp deserves an extra boost simply to make up for nearly 80 years of prohibition. Hemp was already achieving marvelous things in the 1930s. If America had continued to cultivate, manufacture and innovate with cannabis hemp through the latter two-thirds of the 20th century, who knows what incredible products would be available today.

SUSTAINABILITY & ECOLOGY OF HEMP & BAMBOO

The long history of these plants and their remarkably widespread use have everything to do with the way they grow. Hemp and bamboo both grow easily and prolifically. Unlike felling trees for lumber, utilizing these plants does not result in deforestation. In fact, greater reliance on hemp and bamboo can save trees and forests.

Also, as an alternative to cotton, hemp and bamboo both grow very easily without pesticides and herbicides. Cotton is one of the most chemical-intensive crops cultivated by man. When grown in monoculture, cotton becomes very susceptible to pests and disease.

But let’s no paint with too broad a brush. It’s important to remember that there are thousands of varieties of bamboo, and that dozens of countries are growing bamboo under all sorts of conditions. Similarly, hemp is cultivated and processed in many different ways. Also, organic cotton continues to grow in popularity. But even the term “organic” can mean a lot of different things when it comes to commercial agriculture.

Overall though, hemp and bamboo are both very fast growing and resistant to pests. Hemp is an annual crop. That means it is planted early in the year, harvested late in the year and replanted the following year. In most cases farmers will rotate hemp with things like beans, wheat, or alfalfa, to keep the soil healthy.

Replanting hemp in the same field for more than three of four consecutive seasons can make the crop susceptible to pests and disease. Otherwise, the plant is very resilient. For this reason hemp can easily grown without toxic pesticides or herbicides. In fact, it grows like a weed. Most crops will get taller than a house by the end of the growing season.

While hemp may be considered a weed, bamboo is actually a perennial grass. This means you don’t have to replant it. In most cases, gardeners have the opposite problem. Bamboo’s rhizome roots spread so quickly that it can be difficult to contain. But after harvesting bamboo, it grows right back. Like the grass that might grow in your front yard, it comes back stronger and healthier after a good trimming.

Also, bamboo naturally grows this way, in huge swaths. In other words, a natural bamboo forest will look almost identical to a cultivated bamboo farm. The bamboo grows thick, crowding out other weeds and plants, and its fallen leaves are enough to nourish the soil.

So, like hemp, bamboo grows big and strong, without the need for fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. In fact, bamboos are among the fastest growing plants on earth. It’s common for commercial varieties to grow a foot a day in the growing season. And tropical varieties, in ideal conditions, can grow 2 or 3 times that much. Only certain types of seaweed grow faster.

So in terms of renewability and sustainability, I’d say it’s a draw. Both plants grow voraciously without the need for heavy spraying. And both crops can recapture sizable amounts of carbon, critical in the battle against climate change. Hemp has the advantage of rotating nicely with other food crops. While bamboo—if managed responsibly—can be harvested from natural forests in the wild, with minimal disruption to habitat.

VERSATILITY OF HEMP & BAMBOO

Even those who don’t fully appreciate the sustainability and renewability are pretty amazed when they set foot in shop filled almost entirely with products made from a single plant. Whether it’s a hemp store or a bamboo store, you can find everything from socks and underwear to furniture, toiletries, housewares and paper products.

I can’t think of many plants that can serve as the primary material for a whole department store. But I’ve done it twice, once with hemp and once with bamboo. If there’s another crop that can rival these two for versatility, I ‘d sure like to know about it.

Natural Fiber Clothing

For many, the most surprising and impressive use of hemp and bamboo is for fabric and textiles. But in fact, people have been spinning and weaving with hemp fibers for thousands of years. For centuries, hemp provided the ropes and riggings for all the major sailor fleets around the world.

Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, hemp and linen were the two most widespread textile crops. The first American flags were hemp, and our Founding Fathers famously grew hemp.

The advantages have always been the same. Hemp grows very easily, and it requires only the simplest machinery for processing. Containing some of natures longest and strongest fibers, hemp makes the sturdiest rope and some of the most durable fabric. For a heavy-duty canvas or denim, hemp is ideal. But it can also be woven into something softer, or blended with cotton for a lighter hand.

The use of bamboo is equally ancient. But bamboo fabrics are actually a very recent development, from the last couple of decades. And when it first appeared, natural fiber enthusiasts were just blown away. Having grown accustomed to the somewhat rough feel of hemp fabric, the sumptuous softness of bamboo came as a sheer delight.

Indeed, the comfort of bamboo socks, underwear and t-shirts well surpasses those made from hemp. And the drape of a bamboo sundress or nightgown is something heavenly. And then, for real luxury, the bamboo towels and bedsheets are just unbeatable.

There’s a reason, however, that bamboo fabric came so late on the scene. There is a processing stage to extrude the cellulose out of bamboo and reconstitute it into thread. This viscose extraction relies mainly on caustic soda, which is basically lye. And while it’s far from the worst of industrial bi-products, its use and disposal are something of a concern.

I’m convinced that compared to cotton, the sustainability of farming bamboo still makes it a superior resource, despite the viscose process. And even organic cotton goes through a processing stage. But compared to hemp, I’m not so sure.

In the end, it’s hemp for durability (jeans, backpacks, rope and twine) and bamboo for softness (undergarments, t-shirts, towels and bedsheets). After all, as much as we admire the versatility, we aren’t looking for a single plant to do everything.

Bamboo Building Materials

As a building material, I won’t hesitate to recommend bamboo. Hard, flexible and hollow, bamboo poles are incredibly easy to work with. I’ve made my own stools and picture frames. And with some basic carpentry skills, you can produce all manner of furniture and accent pieces.

Today there is almost no limit to what can be built from bamboo. The flooring is everywhere, but bamboo houses and bicycles are catching on fast.

Still, let’s not ignore hemp as a building material. In 1941, Henry Ford built a car from hemp plastic, stronger than steel. Hemp ethanol also fueled the car. It wasn’t long after after this that industrial hemp basically disappeared. Another victory for big oil and US steel.

I’m not sure how they measure up against bamboo, but keep an eye out for hemp houses. And after all, the greenest construction should incorporate as many different sustainable materials as possible.

Nutritional Properties of Hemp

Bamboo shoots are a delicious treat that people have been enjoying for millennia. Young and tender, they are also loaded with protein, minerals and fiber. But still, they are no match for the precious oil inside a hemp seed.

Not to be confused with CBD oil, hash oil, or other psychoactive cannabis oil products, hempseed oil has some incredible nutritional properties. Naturally rich in minerals and antioxidants, hempseed oil also contains an ideal balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This makes the oil an excellent supplement for better skin and a healthier heart.

You can find all manner of natural skin care products, including soaps, shampoos and lotions made with a hempseed oil base. They’re wonderful for nourishing and moisturizing the skin.

Hemp nut has also been gaining popularity in health food stores. These are hemp seeds with the hard shell removed. Roasted hemp seeds are still tasty with a little salt or seasoning, especially if you like something crunchy. But the high protein (approximately 25 percent by weight) meat from inside the hull is much softer and easier to enjoy once the shell is removed. Try it as a delicious additive on salads or in your granola.

Magical Properties

The fact that cannabis sativa is the source of both industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana makes it something of a magical plant. Even as we focus on the plant’s properties as a natural resource, it’s impossible to overlook its therapeutic qualities.

And it’s difficult to say which property was discovered first. I’m sure that botanists and anthropologists stay up late at night quibbling over this question, long after the well-worn Allman Brothers LP has begun skipping on the turntable.

But seriously, there’s always been and there always will be a tremendous demand for anything that can provide the kind of effects produced by THC, alcohol and other mind-altering substances.

The same cannot be said of bamboo. But it’s clear that this plant holds a unique and magical place in Asian culture. Because of its remarkable abundance and usefulness in providing food, tools and shelter, bamboo appears constantly in artwork and folklore.

Just try to imagine an Oriental landscape brushwork without a dash of bamboo in the background, or the foreground. It’s unthinkable. And you can be equally sure that the artist was painting with a bamboo brush.

What I find truly enchanting, however, is bamboo’s role in Eastern mythology. It seems that every Asian culture has its own story about the part that bamboo played in the creation of the world or the birth of mankind. There’s something endearing about the idea that the first man and woman sprung from the hollow space inside a bamboo pole.

Furthermore, bamboo’s characteristics of resilience, flexibility and emptiness conform nicely to the virtues of Eastern philosophy. It is important to be strong but not rigid. One must be able to bend in the breeze without breaking. And it’s essential to keep the ego in check while connecting with the empty void inside.

Conclusions

As eager as we may be to compare one plant to another and select a clear winner, the process just isn’t that simple. The fact is, hemp and bamboo both have tremendous benefits and advantages as natural resources. And if we compare them to the leading competitors—namely cotton, lumber and petroleum—they both come out way ahead.

But if we are looking for one wonder plant and panacea that can do it all, then we’re still stuck in the wrong kind of thinking. And what we need, more than anything, is a new kind of thinking. Hemp and bamboo are both fantastic alternatives, and we should be using them more and more. But equally important to what we use, is how we use it.

If we go cutting down tropical rain forests to set up giant bamboo plantations, then we’ve learned nothing. If you buy a new pair of hemp pants every week and stuff them in your closet with a hundred other outfits you never wear, then you’re not helping.

Sustainability is more than something you can point to in a certain crop or a single product. Sustainability is a way of thinking, living, and prioritizing. It means taking care of yourself, in order to help your community, in order to improve the earth. Just think about it, and make responsible choices.

If you have a local farm with seasonal produce and respectable farming practices, support it whenever possible. If you can avoid shopping at Walmart or buying palm oil, then by all means, do so. Or if you can patch a hole and make a pair of pants last another year, do it.

And if you have to choose between ordering a bamboo product on Amazon or a hemp product from a local mom and pop, or vice versa, just think about it. In the end, those decisions will make more difference than whether you can get this many tons of fiber from so many hectares of land.

Further reading

To learn more about the multifaceted world of alternative resources and natural fibers, check out some of our other articles.

What’s so great about bamboo? Bamboo symbolism in legends and folklore Q & A: 12 Common questions about bamboo Sustainable Ag and the trouble with monoculture
Whats so great about bamboo

What are we supposed to think when something that’s been around for five thousand years suddenly turns trendy? Yoga reaches the west, and it’s like something brand new. The paleo diet gets resurrected from the ice age, and it’s the culinary panacea. (Although I’m personally more fond of fermented foods, which also harken back to the stone age.) And then, of course, we have bamboo. It’s the coolest thing to come off the farm since frozen peas.

No doubt, bamboo is anything but new. Asians have been cultivating bamboo for food, shelter and everything else since before westerners had even developed written language. Old school indeed.

But not everything crosses the globe as fast as the avian flu. Like yoga, meditation and kimchi, it seems that bamboo needed a few millennia to marinate and ferment on the Asian continent. Only then would it be ready for mass consumption in the east.

And it stands to reason. The Asians have always had a strong reputation for their patience and their ability to take the long view. Not like the Americans, with our insatiable appetites for instant gratification.

“Beware the sleeping dragon, for when she awakes the Earth will shake.” Winston Churchill was referring to China when he issued this warning. But he could have just as easily been referring to any Chinese export, be it Buddhism, Beanie Babies, or bamboo.

Certainly, it hasn’t taken long for bamboo to rise from its epic slumber. And in just a decade or two, it has sent a tremor through the foundations of the lumber, cotton and hemp industries. She appeared like a dragon, and today bamboo is everywhere.

Why bamboo?

The history of bamboo and its long list of benefits could fill an encyclopedia. Its uses, its properties, and its revered status in Asian are the stuff of myth and legend. Quite literally. But it’s all very factual at the same time. So let’s review the data.

Bamboo for sustainability

One of the biggest buzz words surrounding bamboo in the course of its recent resurgence has been “sustainability.” Here’s another concept that’s turned a bit trendy, and thank goodness for that.

Instead of simply reaping and pillaging the earth’s resources as quickly and thoroughly as possible, for the purpose of instant gain and maximum profit, sustainability emphasizes another model. Before the era of instant breakfasts and mass production, hunters and farmers understood their relationship with the earth to be more of a give and take.

After a relentless century or two of taking and taking, sustainability proposes to make giving great again. Prioritizing sustainability means taking the long view. It means recognizing the need to preserve our planet’s resources and harvest them in a way that ensures that they won’t run out.

Clearcutting forests to graze livestock or mono-crop palm trees is not sustainable. But cultivating plants that are readily renewable and give something back to the soil is.

Bamboo for cleaner air and a healthier earth

Bamboo is a perfect example of giving something back. Unlike most commercial crops, bamboo can be cultivated without a massive disruption to the local habitat. Bamboo naturally grows in vast forests. It takes very little from the soil, and its fallen leaves are enough to replenish the nutrients.

Moreover, bamboo is an excellent crop for carbon sequestration. In the same way that that the plant grows quickly, it also captures carbon dioxide more quickly, converting it into precious oxygen. What’s more, bamboo acts as an excellent carbon sink, storing the carbon underground. That’s because even as bamboo is harvested, the plant and its elaborate root system live on. (When tree are cut down, by contrast, great quantities of carbon are released into the atmosphere.)

In the fight against global warming, this is key. And as policy makers become increasingly aware of this fact, they are encouraging more farmers, especially in developing countries like India to use bamboo.

In fact, bamboo is so beneficial that conservationists are planting it across Africa and Asia to promote better soil health. Even when farmers aren’t harvesting bamboo for its myriad uses, the plant still makes itself useful. Bamboo’s robust root network, for example makes it ideal for holding the earth together, preventing erosion and landslides.

In other cases, bamboo can also loosen up degraded soil. In places where the landscape has been denuded, bamboo is proving effective in reviving the soil and restoring its fertility.

An alternative to monocropping

Most modern, commercial agriculture today is done with monocropping. That means taking hundreds or thousand of acres and planting them all with a single crop. Whatever used to live in that space—plant, animal or insect—is forcibly removed or exterminated. There’s a great loss to biodiversity for one thing. But that’s only the beginning.

Next, because the farm is devoted to just a single crop, the soil is going to be seriously depleted of certain nutrients. Also, any pests that enjoy nibbling on that crop are going to be having a field day. Typically, the solution to these two issues has been the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. In other words, they spray the vast acreage with toxic chemicals to kill off weeds and bugs and replenish basic ingredients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

In contrast to this all-too-common practice of industrial agriculture, cultivated bamboo forests can thrive and maintain most of their natural biodiversity. As mature bamboo stalks are harvested, generally those older than five years, the rest of the forest continues to flourish. There is no unnatural susceptibility to pests, or impoverishment of the soil, or need to eliminate native habitats.

Renewability

One great advantage of bamboo over other crops is its perpetual growth habit. Bamboo is a grass, after all. And a bit like the grass in your lawn, you can mow it and watch it grow right back. In fact, cutting your grass actually encourages it to grow more, faster and stronger. Likewise with bamboo.

In some cases, homeowners find this property of renewability to be something of a nuisance. The tenacity of a well-established bamboo plant makes it almost impossible to remove. (See our article on Bamboo Containment and Removal.)

While it might devastate your flower beds and even upend your plumbing, the indomitability of bamboo makes it a dream come true for farmers. Imagine, the cycle of planting and harvesting, planting and harvesting, has been reduced to just harvesting and harvesting. Bamboo doesn’t need to be replanted or rotated.

Bamboo truly grows like a weed. It’s not uncommon for some varieties to stretch a foot or two a day, or more, in the growing season. Not only is that good news for the farmer looking forward to another bumper crop. Bamboo’s high metabolism also makes it a boon for the atmosphere.

Compared to a stand of trees, an equal area of mature bamboo will produce about 35% more oxygen. That makes bamboo an excellent tool in the battle against greenhouse gases and climate change.

So can bamboo save the planet?

In the unending quest for instant gratification, a lot of people are looking for the silver bullet, the quick fix that will stop climate change in its tracks. But the kind of thinking that got us into this mess will not be the kind of thinking that gets us out of this mess. There is no single solution.

Planetary health is like your personal health. You can’t simply take a multivitamin every day and go from sick to healthy. And you can’t just rely on one plant to save the earth.

Of course, take your vitamins, and grow more bamboo, but that’s only part of the solution. Obviously, if we remove all the corn from the midwest and replace it with bamboo native to China, we will have learned nothing. As much as anything, we need a new way of thinking.

Where monoculture is the problem, the only solution must be a polyculture of many different plants and resources. The holistic cure for the earth will include the use of more sustainable crops like hemp, bamboo and flax. It will also require a rich mixture of renewable energy sources. Solar can’t do it all. Wind, geothermal and other innovations will have to play an important part in the healing process.

Versatility: the many uses of bamboo

I don’t believe that bamboo can save the planet single-handedly, but it certainly can do a great number of things. So when people see that bamboo is stronger than oak, softer than cotton, faster growing than hemp, and almost impossible to eradicate, it’s easy to see why they might look to it as the all-in-one answer.

Bamboo for lumber

When we think about the uses of bamboo, the first thing that probably comes to mind is its great potential as a timber alternative. Although technically a member of the grass family, bamboo looks and feels a lot more like wood.

When harvested mature and properly cured, it can be even harder than oak. So you’ve no doubt seen bamboo flooring used for a beautiful and functional effect. Also, bamboo cutting boards have become almost ubiquitous. And if bamboo can withstand the pressure of a thousand foot steps or the chopping of a cold steel cleaver, then what can’t it do?

In fact, bamboo has become a popular material for all manner of construction. Historically, bamboo has long been the first choice for scaffolding. You’ll still see it if you walk past a construction site anywhere in Asia. Compared to steel, it has comparable tensile strength and superior flexibility, and is remarkably easy to come by.

But today, modern architects around the world are taking bamboo to the next level. In Colombia, Simón Vélez has accomplished unthinkable things and built unbelievable temples and structures from bamboo. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, prefab bamboo houses have hit the market and revolutionized the way people think about green construction.

Straw bale is great and all. But once you’ve seen the sublime elegance of a bamboo home, you’ll gladly to save the hay for the horses.

And even if you saw some bamboo flooring in the hardware store ten years ago, you won’t believe what they can do with it today. The variety of grains is astonishing, and the quality just keeps getting better. Whether you’re looking for new floors, kitchen cabinets, or wainscoting for the man cave, bamboo can do it. And all without cutting down a single tree.

As the look of bamboo lumber continues to grow more refined, the face of bamboo furniture is also looking more sophisticated. Sure, the old-school bamboo and rattan poles strapped together still look cool, especially if you’re going for the tropical theme in a sunroom. But if you want something more clean and modern, the Gilligan’s Island ensemble isn’t going to cut it. Luckily, companies like Greenington Furniture in Washington are taking modern bamboo furnishings to a new heights.

Bamboo over cotton

Another recent bamboo innovation has taken the textile industry by storm. In the mid to late 90s, it looked like hemp was poised to become the next wonder fabric. But then along came bamboo, producing a marvelously soft fabric with unlimited applications.

Hemp continues to provide an excellent alternative for canvas and products that require durability, like jeans, shoes and backpacks, for example. But if you’re looking for a soft t-shirt, nightgown, or pair of undies, you can’t beat bamboo.

This remarkably soft material is also extremely absorbent, anti-bacterial, odor-resistant and temperature regulating. Some of the best and most popular uses of bamboo fabric include socks, t-shirts, towels and bed sheets. Honestly, there are few things I enjoy more than a high quality bamboo towel. A blend of half and half bamboo and cotton seems ideal for towels, for some reason.

And 100% bamboo bed sheets are the pinnacle of luxury. They’re silky soft without being slippery smooth and sliding off the bed like satin. They also manage to feel warm in the winter and stay cool in the summer, thanks to bamboo’s superior breathability.

Unlike hemp, bamboo textiles have not been around for thousands of years. This is a relatively new development. The process of making fabric from bamboo involves taking the entire plant—leaves, stalks and all—and pulping them in caustic soda. Caustic soda, also known as sodium hydroxide, is basically the same as lye, a standard ingredient in both commercial and homemade soap.

As the bamboo is reduced to a pulp, the cellulose is reconstituted into rayon type of material. Tencel©, viscose, lyocell and modal are all comparable cellulosic fibers. But from my experience, bamboo has a much different feel from any of those rayon shirts I was wearing back in the 80s. While rayon had a more synthetic feel, like nylon or polyester, bamboo is soft and breathable. It’s the perfect material on a hot day, or for a humid climate.

And once again, the way bamboo grows much it a far more sustainable and superior resource than conventional cotton, which is extremely pesticide and herbicide intensive. Commercial cotton cultivation requires a monoculture, row after row of cotton. And when cotton grows like this, it becomes very susceptible to pests like the the boll weevil. It is also very demanding on the soil.

Also, compared to other cellulose materials, which may share some of bamboo’s properties, bamboo’s sustainability simply cannot be surpassed. Today, most viscose and rayon fibers are produced from wood pulp. And we know that bamboo will grow back faster than any tree.

Additional uses of bamboo

Besides bamboo flooring and bamboo socks, which have gone fairly mainstream, their are a host of other uses, ranging from the every day to the more obscure. If you go out for sushi or Thai food, for example, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll be eating off of bamboo chopsticks. And since Asia and the rest of the world go through close to a billion pairs of chopsticks a day, it’s essential to make them from a renewable material. Better still to eat with more durable, reusable chopsticks or utensils.

Another item we use so often that we barely think about it, is the toothbrush. It’s not a single-use item, but most of us probably go through four or five toothbrushes in a year. And since the majority of toothbrushes are plastic, that means that mountains of discarded toothbrushes are forming all over the world.

Bamboo toothbrushes have grown very popular in the zero waste circles and among those of us looking for more sustainable forms of dental hygiene. The sleek bamboo is attractive, feels good in the hand, and will naturally biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time.

What’s more, many bamboo toothbrushes are now using bristles made from bamboo charcoal. Charcoal bristles?! Yes, it may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but bamboo charcoal has fantastic cleansing properties. Not only does it whiten the teeth, but it is also antibacterial and leaches toxins. They’re even making some excellent bamboo charcoal water filters for personal use.

One more item that’s really gaining traction, is the bamboo bicycle. In the developing world, it’s a concept that just makes perfect. Where material like steel is both scarce and expensive, bamboo makes an ideal substitute. In Ghana for example, a number of programs are working get more bamboo bicycles in the hands of students and young people. Those who could not afford the transportation to get to and from school are now zipping through cities and villages to get to class on their sturdy, lightweight bamboo bikes.

Meanwhile, in Europe and North America, high performance bamboo bikes are all the rage. Flexible, lightweight and esthetically pleasing, these bicycles make a bold pro-environmental statement, but also look very cool. Whether you’re looking for an off-road mountain bike or a sleek speedster for the city, there’s a bamboo bike to suit your needs.

The more you think about it, the list of things you can’t make from bamboo just gets shorter and shorter. And again, we’re not suggesting that we start making everything from bamboo and stop using anything else. There’s nothing balanced or sustainable about that. But if we can substitute a durable bamboo product for a single-use plastic item, or do something to scale back on the global use of agricultural spraying, then yes, by all means.

Rich in history and tradition

As we’ve seen, the versatility and sustainability of bamboo makes it something of an incredible plant. It’s certainly a natural resource that deserves to play a larger role on the world stage. But more than that, there is something truly special about bamboo that verges on the magical.

Bamboo’s long legacy

Even before the dawn of recorded history, Asians were certainly making use of bamboo. It is and has always been one of the most prolific plants in that part of the world. Also, one of the easiest to harvest and work with. Harvesting the young shoots to eat requires no tools. And the simplest of handsaws is enough to harvest the mature poles. And other tropical grasses provide the string and strapping to attach the poles. No doubt that primitive Neanderthals were making use of this plentiful resource and fashioning bamboo spears to hunt down their mastodons.

Historians have traced the cultivation of bamboo back about 7,000 years. That’s makes it one the oldest—if not the oldest—to be purposefully planted by man. Not surprising, given that it can be used for food, shelter, and weaponry, not to mention firewood.

An enchanted grass

A quick look at the fables and folklore of the east, and bamboo immediately stands out. Through China, India, Japan and southeast Asia, there are dozens of myths and legends in which bamboo features prominently. It is not unusual for bamboo to serve as the source of all life in some creation stories. Sometimes mankind sprouts from a bamboo shoot, and sometimes the creator bestows bamboo to man as the ultimate blessing.

Regardless of the exact role it plays in literature, it’s clear that bamboo holds a position of supernatural importance in Asian cultures. In artwork, both ancient and modern, a splash of bamboo in the foreground or off to the side, conveys a certain mood. More than likely, the painting was done with a bamboo brush.

In Chinese art there is a motif of the “Four Gentleman”. Referring to the Confucian model of a perfect gentleman, they cite four plants: the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo, and the chrysanthemum. These plants embody the highest standards of sublime beauty and refined elegance.

Chinese herbalists also look to bamboo for a variety of medicinal benefits. Shavings of young bamboo shoots are called Zhu ru. Cold and sweet to the taste, they are traditionally used to treat acute fevers and a number of other conditions, including deep coughing and vomiting. Bamboo leaves also contain flavonoids which can work as antioxidants to reduce inflammation, promote circulation, and inhibit allergy reactions.

And if you’ve ever walked through a forest of bamboo and listened to the canes knocking in the breeze, you know there’s nothing else quite like it. This grass that grows like a tree, with poles as strong as steel but hollow on the inside, is a truly wondrous thing. It’s no mystery why so many cultures and stories have associated it with something larger than life.

And today, as our earth faces threats and dangers which also appear larger than life, it’s time to turn to bamboo. This enchanted plant that’s been with us since time immemorial, a constant companion of our species, can play a vital role as we adapt the way we think, act and consume. Like bamboo, we are mere passengers on the mothership earth. It’s time for mankind to bend in the breeze and acknowledge that we too can be humble on the inside.

Further reading

If you’re mesmerized by the powerful potential of bamboo and want to know more about its colorful history and its manifold uses, please check out more articles from our blog.

Here’s a short list of some of our most popular articles.

8 Best books about bamboo The 20 best bamboo gardens in the world The best bamboo for construction Growing Bamboo: The complete how-to guide Bamboo symbolism in legends and folklore Bamboo Q & A: Ask the experts
Central Coast Sustainability Festival

The 2015 Central Coast Sustainability Festival takes place this Saturday, May 2, at Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo. The festival, hosted by the Cal Poly Future Fuels Club, will feature bands, companies, alternative fuel and electric vehicles, and other projects all with one goal: making the world we live in more sustainable. Up to 30 businesses will be exhibiting their sustainable tech and cars, 2 bands (including San Luis Obispo’s own Louder Space, and Attic Empire), and several food vendors will be there!

Sustainable ag and Monoculture farming

With deep gratitude to the investigative journalism of Michael Pollan and to the burgeoning intrusion of natural fiber alternatives into the fashion industry, the general public is growing increasingly aware of the need for a revival of sustainable agriculture. In a climate of concern and sometimes desperation, buzzwords like green, organic and sustainable may be cast into the breeze like so many granules of pollen, but they mean little without a proper context for understanding the roots of this thorny issue. Agronomy is not a subject to be mastered overnight, but one to be studied over the seasons of a lifetime. For now let’s consider the modern method of monocropping.

In the past 80 years or so, the art and science of agriculture has undergone an astonishing transformation in order to keep up with the hyperbolic rate of world population growth. The need to extract an ever-growing quantity of produce — whether for food, fuel or fiber — from a planet of limited resources has required a massive wave of innovation among an ever-shrinking number of increasingly specialized farmers. The capacity of these mega-farms to meet the demand of global consumption with sufficient supply and minimal prices represents a genuine triumph of modern civilization. But (you knew there’d be a but, right?), at what cost?

One of the key components of this hyper-efficient system of modern farming involves the technique of cultivation called monoculture, growing huge areas of a single crop, such as the millions of acres in and around Iowa farmed exclusively for corn. If you visit almost any major farm in the world, you will see this technique in practice, row after identical row of crop X, bred to perfect uniformity and invariable mediocrity. The tidy, geometric rows may bear a certain appeal to the post-industrial, minimalist sense of aesthetic, but the impact on both the farmland and the finished product can be detrimental.

In the old days of subsistence farming, a family would plant variegated rows of roots, tubers and vegetables to ensure themselves a diverse diet come harvest time. But because each crop has its own soil nutrient and water needs, not to mention pruning and harvesting methods, this method of “polyculture” is certainly not the most efficient for large scale production. On the other hand, it does tend to yield a more nutritious and full flavored product with minimal pest and disease issues.

These are the chief problems we can associate with monocropping. When thousand of acres of broccoli or cotton, for example, are cultivated en masse, they are guaranteed to deplete the soil of those specific nutrients that broccoli or cotton use most. Industrial agriculture addresses this issue with the heavy application of chemical fertilizers. Residue and run-off from these petrochemical fertilizers has been demonstrated to be potentially harmful to both the habitat and the end consumer.

Secondly, monocropping results in the crop’s severe vulnerability to pests and diseases. An unnaturally high concentration of a given plant is sure to attract and support an unnaturally high number of whichever pests thrive on that plant, while their natural predators will remain absent or ineffective. Likewise, a plant-specific disease could spread like the plague across the exposed acreage of monoculture. Again, these man-made challenges are overcome with manmade solutions, i.e. the heavy application of pesticides and insecticides, with whose risks we are already familiar, those which chemical companies like Monsanto fervently deny.

How to draw the greatest efficiency out of a plant without chemically-intensive monocropping is a leading concern among organic farmers. Many have simply resorted to the use of more natural and organic fertilizers, animal-derived but industrially produced. But we might also look to nature for her solutions.

Unlike cotton and broccoli, there are a number of plants that actually thrive in monoculture conditions. Take the giant redwood, for example. They can stand alone, with reasonable success, in parks and gardens up and down the west coast, but only in vast swaths do they truly thrive. In their native habitat, these evergreen macro-organisms generate a climate of their own, attracting storm systems to satisfy their unquenchable thirst, while also sheltering one another from the high winds. As these old-growth forests shrink, the viability of individual trees is put at peril. That ecological sensitivity makes redwoods less than ideal as a crop for commercial cultivation, but under responsible forest management, other trees can be grown and harvested for lumber with a minimal environmental impact.

In addition to certain trees, many grasses also thrive in a monoculture. One of these grasses is bamboo. Not only does it renew itself with ease (similar to your front yard after it’s mown), and grow at record rates of several inches (even up to a couple feet) per day, but it also flourishes in the modern farmers’ ideal setting: the monoculture. Hence it can be cultivated on a commercial scale with minimal unnatural assistance. As a lumber alternative, its rate of renewability outpaces most trees by about 10 or 20 to one. As a fiber alternative, it leaves cotton in the dust; conventional cotton, after all, is subjected to more heavy chemical crop dusting than any other plant on the planet.

So if you’re concerned about sustainable agriculture, you need to be thinking about alternatives to unnatural monocropping. But if you’re interested in agricultural efficiency, you may find the large scale of monoculture all too enticing. While something of a botanical phenomenon, bamboo cannot and should not replace replace every other source of lumber and fiber on the planet, but it certainly cannot be ignored. It must play a major role in the global polyculture of the future, as we struggle to meet the needs of a shrinking planet, a mushrooming population, and an overburdened environment.

To learn more about planting bamboo ornamentally or agriculturally, check out our articles on The Best Bamboo for Your Garden and The Best Books About Bamboo.

Sustainable bamboo

(The following story was written by me in the spring of 2007, and appeared in a number of local publications.)

Suddenly it seems like everybody’s talking about sustainability and renewable resources. And well they should. After 30 years of hot air about global warming and peak oil, the environment is finally talking a lead role in the American political drama. Solar energy is radiating across California and the nation, organic produce is spreading like pollen in the spring, and alternatives to disappearing hardwood and pesticide-rich cotton are drawing more interest than ever.

One remarkable resource that’s recently come out of the woodwork and into the spotlight is bamboo. A paragon of sustainability, bamboo is finding its way into construction, flooring, clothing, towels and linens. And unlike so many progressive alternatives, bamboo is absolutely affordable. It doesn’t require another 20 years of research or legislation, and it doesn’t demand a major initial investment to be recouped a decade from now. Bamboo is economically viable today.

Words like renewable and sustainable get thrown around a lot, and they’re likely to cause some misunderstanding. Even petroleum is a renewable resource; it just might take a few hundred thousand years to replenish itself. Redwood trees renew themselves much faster, in just a few centuries. As long as we don’t harvest them any faster than they grow, they could be considered sustainable. Further up on the scale, we have annual crops like hemp, which can grow up to 12 feet in a single season, with minimal crop rotation and little or no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Easily maintained and renewed each year: that’s sustainable.

Then there’s bamboo. A division of the grass family, with as many as 2000 varieties, bamboo flourishes in virtually every climate. It is a notoriously vigorous grower; some varieties grow as much as 3 feet a day in the growing season — although a few inches a day is more typical. Bamboo reaches maturity within five years, and, as a grass, requires no replanting. Anyone who’s ever tried removing unwanted bamboo knows this characteristic all too well. When bamboo is cut down, it just comes right back, and stronger. If there’s a more readily renewable resource out there, I’d like to know about it.

The vast majority of commercial bamboo comes from China, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. Indeed, they’ve been using the plant in that part of the world for both food and shelter for millennia. (They’ve even identified bamboo as having magical and mythical properties.) Countless varieties also thrive throughout Africa and the Americas, even in temperate and hardy climates.

Bamboo’s natural vigor makes it sustainable, plentiful, and inexpensive. And its physical strength and diversity translate directly into its versatility as a natural resource. In addition to all of its traditional uses for things like chopsticks and furniture, bamboo today is pressed and laminated as a superior lumber alternative. Stronger even than oak or maple, bamboo has become the first choice in flooring. And in the past couple years, its price has come to rival that of traditional hardwood. This pressed bamboo is also becoming wildly popular for cutting boards and kitchenware because of the way it resists scratching and repels moisture.

Bamboo clothing and fabrics, however, may hold the plant’s greatest promise. Until you’ve seen it yourself, the touch of bamboo is hard to imagine, and difficult to believe. Beat into a pulp and spun into thread, bamboo fiber yields an amazingly soft, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial material. Remarkably soft and absorbent bamboo towels are simply exquisite. And, unlike conventional cotton, bamboo grows prolifically without fertilizers, pesticides or defoliants.

In the quest for a global panacea, bamboo might not necessarily save the planet; but in terms of renewability and sustainability, it’s certainly one of the most promising natural resources we have. And not just promising — bamboo is available today, and affordable. No longer must one pay a premium to support a cause or to make an environmental statement. At last, you can do what’s right for the earth, what’s right for yourself, and what’s right for your budget.

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