Bamboo is something I and everyone looking for sustainable eco-friendly fabrics and more sees about on the daily. This got me to thinking about bamboo as a plant and in awe of how something so hard and fibrous could be turned into soft fabrics. With bamboo being touted as a sustainable product I decided to look into it further. What I found is the reality of bamboo is a bit of a complex mess.
Is bamboo sustainable? Well, yes if you are looking purely at the plants ability to grow quickly, hardily and in mass quantities. Comparing it to other sources such as forest wood it does seem ideal when we are trying so hard to cut back on the loss of our forests world wide, but the environmental impact may not be being completely accounted for. It is very possible bamboo is just the newest material in the grand scheme of greenwashing (AKA making something sound more environmentally friendly than it is).
At present there seems to be no studies or observations on how much land is being potentially cleared to make bamboo as a crop, nor is there really any regulations on how it is grown. While it is known to not need pesticides etc. it doesn’t mean it isn’t being grown with them or that the land it’s on isn’t being treated with some other chemicals.
The next huge issue is in the processing. Remember that ridiculously soft and comfortable bamboo clothing or bedsheets you have? Well it turns out that to get to that point requires a major and highly intensive chemical process. About 50% of the hazardous waste that is a byproduct of making bamboo rayon goes straight into the environment and cannot be re-captured. When you see something labeled bamboo it typically means this process.
From the perspective of a seller bamboo is less costly to produce then say cotton, but from an environmentally conscious consumer perspective hemp and organic cotton are at the top of the list for being the most eco-friendly options. The moral of this story is do your homework. What may seem like an eco-friendly choice often has a nasty side to consider. Due to the chemical process of bamboo production you are barely a step up from plastic when it comes to environmental impact.
Perhaps in the future a better production method will be able to make bamboo a truly good option, but right now we aren’t there yet. We have to get manufactures and technology on board and our choices as consumers are how we do that.