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