Bamboozled! The 4 Ways that Bamboo Products May Not be All That “Green”

By Linsey Knerl on 3 April 2009 (Updated 18 September 2009) 14 comments
Photo: Joi Ito

We’ve all been there.  Bopping down the aisles of your local home furnishings retailer and seeing all the “earth-friendly” products and tools that claim to be “sustainable.”  Many of them are branded with green lettering, logos, or pictures of the earth and trees.  Many more are made with bamboo.  Before you get all weepy from the impact you’ll be making by buying into this trend, read on for the 4 ways bamboo may not be the act of stewardship you thought it was. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  Bamboo in and of itself, “can” be a better option for manufacturing.  According to Leigh Anne Van Dusen of O Ecotextiles (who helped me put together this piece), “bamboo is the fastest growing grass and can grow a yard or more a day.  Bamboo reaches maturity quickly and is ready for harvesting in about 4 years. Bamboo does not require replanting after harvesting because its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots which almost zoom up while you watch them, pulling in sunlight and greenhouse gases and converting them to new green growth. And bamboo does this the natural way without the need for petroleum-guzzling tractors and poisonous pesticides and fertilizers.  In addition, bamboo seems to be wonderfully carbon positive:  a stand of bamboo neutralizes 30 times more CO2 than an equal size stand of hardwood forest.” 

Sounds good, huh? 

The issue of bamboo products as “sustainable” comes in when you try to use it to make stuff.  Here is where the process gets tricky (and less “green".) 

  1. How is the bamboo obtained in the first place? 

The opportunity to be an eco-friendly alternative begins at harvest.  To be certain that the bamboo is truly sustainable, it must be harvested from FSC-certified plantations, and not stolen illegally from the wild (where it could impact panda populations.)  As of this writing, obtaining FSC certification for the supplier has not become a reality. 

  1. How does the bamboo get here? 

Let’s be real.  While there is great opportunity for a material like bamboo, anything that has to be shipped over will use fuels in its transportation.  There are certainly better ways to do this than others, but unless we are certain that importation is done in a smart way, the act of shipping it over could negate any useful, green impact. 

  1. How is the bamboo “processed” 

Bamboo has to be transformed somewhat before it can be used for consumer goods.  Clothing, for example, has a rather extensive process that must be completed before the raw bamboo can be made into cloth fibers.  Here is just a bit of what Leigh Anne Van Dusen had to tell us: 

“There are two ways to use bamboo as a fiber in textile: (1) naturally retted bamboo can be spun into yarn and (2) the bamboo can go through the viscose process to produce a regenerated cellulosic yarn.  The bamboo viscose is much cheaper than the natural bamboo, but they are quite different animals.  The natural bamboo is very much like hemp or linen in character – strong, abrasion resistant, some natural texture, good drape.   It gets softer with each washing and can be ordered pre-washed (in fabric form).  The viscose is silky, and soft, but rather limp.   It is less strong than natural bamboo, less abrasion resistance, will pill more, will shrink more.  It has a luster like other viscose, which many designers choose to avoid as “too shiny”. 

Normal">Almost all the bamboo on the market today is produced using the viscose process. Bamboo viscose is a high-tech process that includes refining bamboo pulp through hydrolysis-alkalization and multiphase bleaching. The resulting pulp is extruded through spinnerets and hardens in a sulfuric acid bath; although the resulting yarn is non-toxic, the waste could create an environmental hazard. 

However, a (very) few enlightened manufacturers use bacteria and enzymes to neutralize the sulfuric acid, as well as not using another common chemical in the process (sodium hydroxide) and thereby returns wastewater to the ecosystem that meets stringent  drinking water standards. There is some out gassing of the sulfuric acid to the air – air pollution.” 

The clothing industry isn’t alone it is reputation for misusing the goodness of bamboo to peddle “greener” wares.  The bamboo flooring industry (and other “hardwood” goods) has been notorious for using urea-formaldehyde (UF) adhesive in the lamination process (which not surprisingly, can compromise indoor air quality.)

  1. How is bamboo sold? 

Is the retailer showing consistently "green" values in their business practices?  While I can’t even go into all the tactics that retailers could engage in that would counter the positives of selling a truly sustainable bamboo product, they certainly do exist.  The distribution of a “green-washed” bamboo product most certainly won’t redeem any egregious or wasteful company-wide policies.  Simply put, if a store lacks the ability to display good stewardship in their own business model, the bamboo point is moot.

So what’s a wise, eco-conscious consumer to do? 

Use common sense and caution when buying anything new.  Chances are, you have a perfectly good, used alternative to that new bamboo piece you are considering.  (My favorite cutting board, for example, came from an estate sale and was made from original hardwood from the 50’s.)  If you can get away with a used product that was destined for a landfill, for example, your green karma will go up drastically.  Those of you who insist on the look and feel of bamboo are encouraged to do your research and ask questions of your retailer, supplier, and manufacturer.  A green bamboo solution is in reach. 

Many thanks to Leigh Anne Van Dusen of O Ecotextiles. 

For additional reading, see:

TerraChoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing

Money Pit’s “Going Green:  What’s Hype and What Helps

Green Your Decor

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Guest's picture
Diane

Illegal harvests impacting pandas? Huh?

I'm all for renewable resources and harvesting bamboo from actual plantations. But as you pointed out, new shoots are ALWAYS replacing the old canes. And pandas don't eat mature shoots, only new ones. So your claim makes NO sense whatsoever.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I'm no expert, so I won't even try to act as the "official" panda advocate. To understand the impact of illegal harvesting on pandas, however, you'd need to know more about the panda. 

"The giant panda's diet consists mainly (over 99% (Schaller et al. 1985)) of bamboo shoots, up to 13 mm (1/2") in diameter, and bamboo roots. It also eats bulbs of plants such as iris and crocus, grasses and occasionally fish, insects, carrion, eggs and small rodents.  

With a digestive system characteristic of a carnivore, the giant panda is very inefficient in digesting bamboo, utilizing an average of only 17 % of the dry matter.  Therefore, adult pandas must eat 10 - 18 kg (22 - 40 lb)  per day to get enough nourishment"

Bamboo stands are subject to periodic large-scale die-offs, but in the past, when bamboo died off, pandas could migrate to areas with healthy bamboo. With fragmented habitat (which can happen as a result of harvesting), this may not be possible. Since pandas are solitary and shy, they generally will not go into human-populated areas. Cut off from these areas, the pandas have no recourse to alternative food supplies when die-offs occur.

Please keep in mind that it is not just the removal of bamboo from the habitat that affects pandas (as I totally agree that it may be possible to supply both the pandas and the harvesters), but it is the disruption that can occur from having people in their habitat that can ultimately affect the panda population.

Bottom line: Illegal harvesting is illegal.

 

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I think you mean "moot".

There NEVER EVER will be a perfect solution. There are only "best at this time" solutions.

Guest's picture

NEVER EVER is always right. The strive for perfection is the enemy of a good start.

Guest's picture

"as well as not using another common chemical in the process (sodium hydroxide)"

Ah, yes. Horrible, horrible sodium hydroxide. You do realize that Sodium Hydroxide is simple old lye? Lye is best known for it's use in the manufacture of soap. Actually, the goat milk soap that I purchase from a small farm outside of my town (great stuff!) is made with Lye.

Careful, I've heard that some of the manufacturers use dihidrogyen monoxide. We definitely don't want that to get into the ecosystem!

Guest's picture
Laura

"Simple old lye" in industrial quantities is not quite as benign as a couple pounds that your neighbor uses to make goat soap. Does your soap guy wear gloves when he handles it? Does he let his kids play with it? I'm willing to bet the answers are yes and no, because being ubiquitous does not mean that it's not hazardous.

Also, in soap-making, all the NaOH is reacted, so that there is none left at the end--I can't say if that is the case for bamboo processing.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Obviously, I'm no perfectly green person.  My intent in writing this piece was to show that bamboo is no perfect product.  And with many of the bamboo-based products costing more than their hardwood counterparts, I felt that consumers should know what they were paying for.

I'm fine with people purchasing whatever products float their boat.  I'm not OK with people being made to feel that they are somehow not as eco-conscious if they skip trends that haven't been proven as being "green."  So with each new phase of green marketing that we will encounter, there should be questions asked of the industry and the retailers that embrace it.

Thanks for your comments.  I love homemade soap. 

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Jo

The basic problem is that much bamboo material is not correctly labeled. Chemically speaking, there is no such thing as a bamboo fiber. It is either rayon made from bamboo or lyocel made form bamboo, and rayon (most of what's on the market) is made using the viscose process, which is harmful to the environment. Google "American Viscose" and "superfund" and you will see that what's left of the American rayon industry is still causing problems decades after the industry closed down. for more:

http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/search/label/bamboo

Linsey Knerl's picture

Just found the niftiest quote from your blog.  May I share?

Few fibers on the market are 100% eco-friendly, and we all must make choices -- well-informed choices. To help you make better choices, try out the green wardrobe calculator at Ecotextile News. You may be surprised to find that the answer is not so much what you buy, but how you launder it, how long you wear it, and where it goes when you're done with it.

http://nicewhitelady.blogspot.com/2008/08/organic-clothing-bamboo-articl...

Linsey Knerl

Torley Wong's picture

It caught my attention and made me wanna read! :D

Guest's picture
Jo

Thanks, Linsey! Sometimes we get so focused on buying and the production end of our stuff that we forget to consider the entire lifespan of the product. I am trying to avoid buying new rayon (including rayon made from bamboo) because of the burden it places on the local environment, and because of the hype and greenwashing by some retailers. I will buy vintage clothing made from rayon, and I love-love-love lyocell (also marketed as Tencel). Most of all, I don't buy anything I can't wear for a long, long time, and I am careful about how I launder it.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I for one am glad Linsey wrote this piece. I have purchased a few bamboo pieces and was considering buying some others, thinking I would be doing the helpful thing. Who knew?

 

Guest's picture

Bamboo in itself is not the green saviour of the wood or textile industries. I personally try to avoid fabrics made from bamboo because the process to turn bamboo into fabric is environmentally hazardous. And when looking for other products made of bamboo, I try to find out: 1. Where the bamboo came from and 2. Whether toxic adhesives were used to put said product together.

Although it is, in many ways, still better than traditional wood products and textiles, it is still up to the consumer to do due diligence to make sure that the product is green from sourcing through manufacturing. That's, of course, not as easy as I make it sound, but it is a lofty goal worth striving toward.

Thanks for the great article Linsey!

Guest's picture

Just goes to show you that nothing is as "green" as we would be lead to believe . . .