To this day, bamboo houses are a common site across the rural parts of China and South East Asia. But far more impressive are the modern bamboo homes that have been gaining popularity in America and the West with their lighter carbon footprints.
Bamboo is still a common ingredient in chop suey and Asian stir fries, as it has been for many centuries. But today bamboo also appears after the meal in reusable, biodegradable toothbrushes, even in bamboo charcoal infused toothpaste. And how can forget about the bamboo underwear?
As new technologies replace old technologies, and old ways and materials fall out of favor, bamboo just never goes out of style. In fact, the benefits of bamboo in the post-industrial, information age are more profound than ever. In a world saturated with disposable plastics and toxic petroleum products, bamboo is a sustainable resource that promises to clean carbon from the atmosphere and reduce our dependency on petrochemicals.
In this article we will address a host environmental problems facing the world today, many of them having to do with industrial scale farming and modern day consumerism. More importantly, we will explore the ways in which bamboo is helping helping to relieve those problems, contributing to more sustainable means of production and consumption.
The properties of bamboo are so varied and impressive, it’s hard to know where to begin. Its history is long and rich, extending across kingdoms and centuries, from the stone age to the Internet age. It’s no wonder that the Chinese proverb would claim that it’s better to have a meal without meat than a house without bamboo. So useful, it’s impossible to imagine not using bamboo, without inviting some kind of curse upon yourself.
Asians not only build their homes with it, but bamboo is inextricably woven into their myths and folklore as well. For them, bamboo permeates all aspects of life, and always has, not as the result of some clever marketing ploy, but simply because of its superior strength, versatility and availability.
A paragon of sustainability
These days you can hardly hear mention of bamboo without also hearing the word “sustainability.” Some call it trendy, some call it a fad. Call it what you want, but the more people hop on board this bandwagon of renewable resources, the better off our world will be.
There’s simply nothing more renewable than bamboo. Pull up a lounge chair and you can literally watch it grow. Within about five years it’s fully mature, producing culms large enough to harvest. Cut it down and it quickly grows back. Leave it unattended and it easily takes over. Let it overrun your garden and you’ll discover that it can be sustainable in the worst possible way!
Time for a change
Throughout the 20th century, ad men and mad men convinced us to consume, replace and repeat. Modern man flexed his industrial muscles by bending Mother Nature to his own will, by converting the fruits of our planet into profitable products and disposable conveniences.
Lured into the lifestyle of instant gratification, our species grew to become makers and takers, but forgot how to act as caretakers. We reaped the earth for all it had to offer, but neglected to give back. And now, at last, we are reaping our comeuppance, with dirty air, islands of garbage and vanishing rainforests.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, our ancestors seemed to understand their place in the great web of life. They lived in harmony with nature, always attempting to give something back, so there would always be something left behind for the next generations.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing a return to hunting and gathering or stone age living. In many cases, their practices were primitive and foolhardy. Giving back to the earth sometimes required the performance of human sacrifice, for example. Let the record indicate, this is not something I endorse.
But there ways of living and consuming that are more sustainable. We can put a little more energy towards inputs, and not just focus on the output all the time. Mother Earth is mighty, but if we keep up with what we’ve been doing for that last 100 years or so, she’ll soon have nothing left to give.
Bamboo for a cleaner, healthier planet
Bamboo provides the perfect opportunity for us, as earth’s greatest consumers, to give something back. Unlike most commercial crops, bamboo can be cultivated without a massive disruption to the local habitat. Bamboo grows naturally in vast forests. It removes and requires very little from the soil, and its fallen leaves are enough to replenish the nutrients.
Not only that, but bamboo is an excellent crop for carbon sequestration. Just as the plant grows quickly, it also removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere faster, converting it into life-giving oxygen. Finally, bamboo forms an ideal carbon sink, storing the carbon in its complex network of rhizome roots beneath the ground.
That’s because even as bamboo is harvested, the plant and its elaborate root system live on. When trees are cut down, on the other hand, we suffer doubly. First we lose an organism that can produce oxygen so effortlessly, and then the decomposing stump and roots release their store of carbon back into the atmosphere.
As we scramble to find a remedy against climate change, this is key. And the more policy makers become aware of this fact, the more they encourage farmers, especially in developing countries like India, to use bamboo.
Bamboo is so beneficial, in fact, that ecologists and conservationists are planting it across Africa and Asia to promote better soil health. Even if the farmers aren’t harvesting bamboo for any of its thousands of uses, the bamboo still makes itself useful as a living thing. Its vigorous root system, for example, proves ideal for binding the soil together. There’s no better method to prevent landslides and erosion.
In addition to that, bamboo can also be useful in breaking up dry and denuded soil. In places where the earth has been over-farmed for too many years, leaving the nutrients depleted and impoverished, bamboo has been very effective restoring the soil and reviving its fertility.
The bad news about monocropping
One of the most harmful practices, commonly seen today in modern, commercial agriculture, is what’s called monocropping. That means devoting hundreds or thousand of acres to a single crop. Think of the millions of acres of corn across Nebraska, or wheat in Kansas.
In the short run, this may be great for productivity, but it also invites many new problems and unintended consequence. For one thing, any plants, animals or insects that used to live in that space must be driven out. And if the loss of habitat doesn’t do it, the pesticides will. Say goodbye to an enormous range of biodiversity.
When so many millions of acres of farmland are devoted to a single crop, then the soil is also going to be seriously depleted of whatever nutrients that particular plant needs. Furthermore, those plants are almost certain to attract certain pests and insects in astronomical numbers. Think of the boll weevil plagues on the cotton fields of the Deep South.
Historically, the common solution to these two problems has long been the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. In order to maintain entirely unsustainable and single-minded methods of agriculture, big farmers spray the great swaths of landscape with toxic chemicals. This is done to exterminate weeds and bugs and also to replenish basic soil components like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. And in the process, massive populations of beneficial insects, like bees and ladybugs, get wiped out. Meanwhile, agriculture run off, namely concentrated nitrogen, rills of the rivers and poisons the ground water.
Now take bamboo, on the other hand, and you have an ideal alternative to this all-too-common and irresponsible practice of industrial agriculture. In nature, bamboo has a completely different growth habit from these domesticated grains and fibers.
Bamboo forests, even when cultivated, can flourish and maintain most of their natural biodiversity. As the mature bamboo stalks are selectively harvested, the rest of the forest continues to thrive. In this natural state of monoculture, if you will, bamboo has no unusual susceptibility to pests. The soil can support bamboo naturally, with little or no additives, and much of the wildlife is able to retain it native habitat.
Bamboo as the renewable alternative
The trouble with humans is our precarious position at the top of the food chain. With our omnivorous appetites, we ravage the earth, consuming resources without prejudice. When possible we replant and try to replace what we use. But it’s not always possible. Certain types of trees take decades to reach maturity, and fossil fuels need millions of years before they are prime for the pump.
One of the greatest benefits of bamboo over other resources is its perpetual growth habit. Bamboo is a grass, and like the grass in your lawn, you can mow it down and watch it grow right back. Cutting the grass actually keeps it looking healthy and green, promoting fresh new growth. And it’s the same with bamboo, always growing back, renewing itself, even stronger than before.
Oftentimes, gardeners will find this property of renewability to be more of a nuisance than a boon. Few things in the garden are as unstoppable as the well-established bamboo plant with its tenacious will to survive. You can check out our article on Bamboo Containment and Removal to learn more about how to deal that.
Although the average home owner might struggle to remove it before it wreaks havoc on the rose garden, the sheer tenacity of bamboo makes it a dream come true for farmers and tree huggers. No more planting and waiting and harvesting and then replanting. Bamboo pretty well plants itself. Or if you’re planning a farm, you really only need to plant it once. You may have to wait a few years for it to mature and start putting out full-size culms. But once it does, you can just harvest away. Just be reasonable, harvest responsibly, and don’t go clear-cutting.
It’s true that certain varieties of bamboo can grow 2-3 feet a day in the growing season. Moso bamboo, for example, is probably the most widely grown bamboo for clothing and building materials, reaching heights of more than 100 feet in a single season.
And that makes bamboo more than just a wonder crop for farmers, craftsmen and industrialists. Bamboo’s phenomenal metabolism also does wonders for the air we breathe. Compared to a stand of trees, an equal area of mature bamboo can produce about 35% more oxygen. Among the tools we have to combat global warming and greenhouse gasses, the benefits of bamboo cannot be overstated.
Will Bamboo Save the Planet?
As the state of the planet goes from worrisome to darn near catastrophic, the need for solutions—like the ocean surface temperature—is at an all-time high. In the era of instant coffee, instant breakfast and instant karma, people want a quick fix that will put an end to climate change once and for all. But the kind of thinking that got us into this mess will not be the kind of thinking that gets us out.
There is no single solution, no silver bullet, no easy way out. Yes, bamboo will help, and it may be one of the most accessible options in our toolbox. But a job like this is going to require a serious set of tools. Or to use another metaphor, we’re going to need a very well-stocked medicine cabinet.
Healing the planet will take more than just two aspirin and a shot of adrenaline. Although some adrenaline will definitely be necessary. Instead, we need a holistic approach. We need to have a serious conversation about the kinds of resources we use, how we use them, and how we dispose of them when we’re through.
The idea that one plant could solve all our problems is comforting. But transplanting a million Moso bamboo plants from China to replace the oil fields of Texas, the corn fields of Nebraska and the wheat fields of Kansas would be a bit like trading one dependency for another. 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. And it could take time.
The Many, Many Uses of Bamboo
I don’t believe that any one resource can save the planet single-handedly, but bamboo’s many benefits and myriad uses should make it key player in the path to a greener future. It’s true, after all, that bamboo is stronger than oak, softer than cotton, faster growing than hemp, and nearly indestructible. Bamboo can make pretty much anything, and in most cases it can do so more sustainably and with less toxicity.
Bamboo saves trees
Considering the many uses of bamboo, it is without a doubt an essential alternative to deforestation and conventional timber. Although officially a member of the grass family, bamboo has a closer resemblance to wood in many respects.
When harvested mature and properly cured, it can be even harder than oak. Of course you’ve seen bamboo flooring, a beautiful and functional tree-free alternative. Also, bamboo cutting boards are nearly everywhere. And if bamboo can handle the pressure of a thousand foot steps or the sharp edge of a steel knife, it can take anything.
Today, bamboo houses are a growing fad, both as an affordable option in developing countries and as a low carbon material for green building. Bamboo has long been the first choice for scaffolding in China. You’ll still see it if you walk past a construction site anywhere in Asia. Bamboo has a comparable tensile strength to steel and far superior flexibility. And since it grows like a weed, it’s dirt cheap.
In more contemporary and ecologically oriented construction projects, bamboo is setting a new standard. Simón Vélez of Colombia has built some astonishing structures in Latin America, and the Green School in Bali now offers courses in bamboo construction for the most forward thinking carpenters. Sign up for an intensive course at the Bamboo U if you’re serious about raising bamboo to new heights.
No longer does green living require a compromise in quality or comfort. The things they’re doing with bamboo today are as elegant and luxurious as anything you can imagine. Bamboo flooring, for example, just keeps getting better and better, with more options, more grains, and higher quality. And it’s not just for flooring. The latest in bamboo cabinetry and countertops is simply sublime.
As the look of bamboo lumber continues to improve, so does the face of bamboo furniture. It’s cleaner and more sophisticated than the tropical look of bamboo and rattan, but still won’t harm a single tree. Greenington has been a leader in the solid bamboo furniture industry for well over a decade, proving that sustainability and sleek design really can go hand-in-hand.
Bamboo as the new cotton
One of the most exciting developments to come from the bamboo field is the new wave of bamboo textiles. Twenty years ago we thought it was hemp that would be the next miracle fiber. And yes, the strength and versatility of hemp makes it another priceless resource. But then we discovered, or rediscovered bamboo.
Cannabis hemp remains an excellent alternative for heavy duty textiles like canvas, blue jeans, shoes and backpacks. But when it comes to supple softness, as in a cozy t-shirt, nightgown, or a pair of undies, there’s nothing better than bamboo.
But the benefits of bamboo fabric are not limited to its soft touch. It 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. And there’s almost nothing I enjoy more than a high quality bamboo towel. Rather than pure bamboo, a blend of half and half bamboo and cotton seems to work best for towels.
And for the acme of earthly comfort, nothing beats a set of 100% bamboo bed sheets. They’re silky soft without being slippery smooth and sliding off the bed like satin. Because of bamboo’s temperature regulating properties, they keep warm in the winter and stay cool in the summer.
While hemp has been used for ropes and linens for a few thousand years, bamboo fabric is actually a pretty recent innovation. The process of making textiles from bamboo involves the entire plant—leaves, stalks and all—and pulping them in sodium hydroxide. Also known as caustic soda, this is basically the same as lye, a standard ingredient in both commercial and homemade soap.
Once 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. In my experience, however, bamboo has a very different feel from any of those flashy rayon shirts I used to wear back in my flamboyant youth. Somehow rayon always had a more synthetic feel, like nylon or polyester.
Bamboo, in contrast, feels soft and breathable. It’s doesn’t stick to your skin when you sweat, and it’s perfect in a hot, humid climate. I’ve also noticed that if I sit in the direct sun with a black bamboo t-shirt, I don’t feel the heat of the sun the same way I do in an ordinary black cotton t-shirt.
Again, if we look at how bamboo grows, it is unquestionably more sustainable than cotton. Grown conventionally, cotton requires tremendous quantities of pesticides and herbicides to keep the weeds and boll weevils in check. Monoculture farming, as described above, makes cotton very vulnerable to pests and is terribly demanding on the soil.
Finally, we can compare bamboo to cellulose materials, which may share some of bamboo’s properties. Today, most viscose and rayon fibers are produced from wood pulp. Birch trees are a common source, but we already know that bamboo will grow back faster than any tree, and generate more oxygen in the process.
More uses for bamboo
In addition to bamboo flooring and bamboo socks, which have gone somewhat mainstream, there are a host of other uses, ranging from the every day to the exotic. 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.
Something else we use so often that it barely crosses our mind, is the disposable 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 old toothbrushes are piling up all over the world.
Bamboo toothbrushes have grown very popular in the zero waste circles and among those of us looking for more sustainable ways to keep those pearly whites shining bright. The smooth bamboo feels good in the hand and in the mind. Because it’s not plastic, you know it can biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time.
Even more incredible, many bamboo toothbrushes are now using bristles made from bamboo charcoal. It may sound a bit counter-intuitive, whitening your teeth with charcoal, but bamboo charcoal has fantastic cleansing properties. Bamboo charcoal water filters another popular new product, capable of leaching toxins.
One more item that’s really gaining traction, is the bamboo bicycle. Where material like steel is scarce and expensive, bamboo provides the perfect substitute. In Ghana for instance, a number of programs are working to get more bamboo bicycles in the hands (and feet!) 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.
When you think about it, the list of things you CAN’T make from bamboo just keeps getting shorter and shorter. Again, we’re not suggesting that we start making everything from bamboo and stop using anything else. There’s nothing holistic or sustainable about that. But if we can substitute a durable bamboo product for a single-use plastic item, or do something that can simultaneously preserve our forests and reduce the levels of global pesticide use, then let’s do that, please.
If you’re enchanted by the powerful potential of bamboo and want to know more about its rich history and its many uses, please check our blog for more information. Also consider sharing and subscribing to help us spread the good word.
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FEATURED IMAGE: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto, Japan (Unsplash)