What other product could be more versatile than sustainable bamboo? Bamboo products can include
- parts of your house and its furnishings,
- lots of your gadgets
- your clothing and linens
- ingredients for your supper
Plus, it’s great for the environment at the same time.
About 1,450 species of bamboo grow on every continent but Europe and Antarctica. Its stalks grow in a variety of colors, including red, yellow, blue, and black. We have found nearly as many bamboo uses as there are species.
Sustainable bamboo grows from a rhizome (sort of an underground stem). The vertical shoot above ground is called the culm. It is not a tree, but rather a kind of grass. One of the fastest growing plants on the planet, it can grow as much as three or four feet taller in a single day. Some species can grow as tall as 100 feet.
The entire culm reaches full height and girth in three or four months and is ready for harvest in about three years. Bamboo shoots can be harvested much earlier.
Bamboo can be an invasive weed when it grows where it’s not wanted, but that gives it a big advantage as a crop. It does not require extensive irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizer.
Harvesting the culm leaves the rhizome undisturbed, so another will soon grow in its place. On basically the same principle as dividing irises, it is good for the health of the plant.
After natural disasters like hurricanes or cyclones, bamboo grows back faster than almost anything else. Bamboo near ground zero at Hiroshima put up new shoots less than a week after the atomic blast. No plant on Earth is stronger than bamboo. In fact, bamboo is stronger than steel. It can bend more without breaking.
It’s possible to use every part of the bamboo plant for something. Ground-up bamboo roots can make healing teas, tonics, and medicines. Parts often discarded can make charcoal instead. You probably know about at least some more common bamboo products already.
Bamboo uses in forestry and construction
Cutting down a tree for lumber kills it. With responsible forestry practices, it will take about 40 years for a new tree to grow large enough for harvest. Deforestation, whether by irresponsible cutting, or various natural disasters, leads to soil erosion and runoff.
Planting bamboo on deforested ground has numerous advantages:
- It grows very fast and spreads.
- It grows almost anywhere that isn’t too cold, including both desert and wetland conditions and at both low and high elevations.
- It requires less water than trees or most other crops.
- It provides shade to the ground beneath it, lowering the intensity of sunlight and protecting against ultraviolet rays.
Besides erosion control, bamboo serves well in the construction of wetlands and other land and water reclamation projects. For landscaping, it creates windbreaks, helps as a sound screen, and offers privacy. Bamboo even has advantages over trees for reducing global warming. It emits about a third more oxygen than a stand of trees of similar size.
Sustainable bamboo products include anything that can be made of wood. It is at least as strong as wood and has greater tensile strength than steel. Besides lumber and poles, you can find bamboo particle board, fiberboard, veneer, plywood (or more accurately, plybamboo), and laminates. A house can conceivably have a frame, siding, floors, molding, panels, and cabinetry made of bamboo.
The ancient Chinese crossed rivers on suspension bridges made of bamboo. All construction scaffolding in Hong Kong is made of bamboo to this day.
Sustainable bamboo products
Bamboo products include hardware, software, and food. It’s hard to remember that, once upon a time, hardware meant products like tools and lumber. Software meant things like fabric or paper products. So I’m using the terms in their pre-computer senses, although bamboo computer keyboards count as hardware either way!
You can get bamboo floors, cabinetry, and furniture. Smaller bamboo products include musical instruments (especially various flutes, tuned percussion instruments, and even organ pipes), toys, fishing rods, baskets, and writing implements. Because bamboo is inherently antimicrobial, bamboo cutting boards are much safer than wooden ones.
Dentists tell us to replace toothbrushes every three months. Multiply four toothbrushes by everyone who uses one, that’s a lot of plastic handles and nylon bristles going to landfills. Now, it’s possible to get bamboo toothbrushes with natural bristles. Not everyone who has tried them likes them, but they still have plenty of fans. The environmental benefit? When you’re through, you put them in the compost heap instead of the landfill.
Molded bamboo looks like molded plastic and has all the same potential uses. (It’s actually about 40% bamboo in some kind of resin—which is at least more eco-friendly than 100% plastic.)
The automotive industry can use molded bamboo for dashboards, interior trim, and other body parts.
Uses for bamboo in the electronics industry include cases for cell phones, tablets, and computers. Not to mention keyboards and other peripherals. I have seen pictures of electronic gadgets that look like they’re made of wood.
Might people be more reluctant to toss gadgets that still work well if they look classier than standard plastic?
In sports equipment, bamboo can replace wood, plastic, or even metal. Bamboo uses include bicycles, skateboards, baseball bats and other recreational equipment.
Bamboo has become an alternative to fiberglass resin for making surfboards. Not only are they easier on the environment, but they’re also stronger, lighter, springier, and more flexible. Trick surfers especially appreciate them.
Bamboo fabric is very environmentally friendly compared to polyester (which is made from petroleum) and cotton, at least.
I hope my readers need no explanation of the environmental, economic, and geopolitical downsides of any petroleum product.
An acre of cotton yields only about a tenth as much suitable fiber as an acre of bamboo. It also requires extensive irrigation and applications of pesticides and fertilizer. Many of pesticides are toxic to birds, fish, and humans. And fertilizer is just another petrochemical.
Bamboo rayon fabric is inevitably described as luxuriously soft. (Bamboo linen, like other linens, is less soft.) At the same time, as befitting a product that can be used to build a bridge, it is very strong and durable. It absorbs and evaporates sweat. It does not produce static cling. You can find all kinds of products made from it, including clothing, towels, and sheets. It is also naturally antimicrobial.
Using uncharacteristically bad science, the US Federal Trade Commission attempted to disallow environmental claims for bamboo fabric. It falsely implied that retailers withheld the fact that their softest products are rayon. In fact, every description of bamboo fabric I have ever read calls it bamboo rayon or some specific variety of rayon. The FTC further denied that bamboo rayon is biodegradable and antimicrobial. Finding scientific studies that demonstrate otherwise is not difficult. It appears that the FTC primarily intended to protect the cotton industry more than consumers.
Just as bamboo can substitute for wood in construction, it can also make paper. Sustainable bamboo products include any kind of paper, from bond paper to toilet paper and coffee filters.
Bamboo for food
You probably know about bamboo shoots in Chinese food. After all, most grocery store chains carry them. I have also found reference such uses for bamboo as wine, tea, beer, and vinegar.
Besides eating or drinking bamboo products, you can also cook with them. Bamboo makes good charcoal, or even basic fuel in parts of the world without electricity. Burning anything causes environmental problems, but bamboo requires so few resources to grow it that burning bamboo has a better environmental impact than burning wood.
The Chinese have used the outer husk, leaves, and sap of bamboo to make medicines for centuries. Western medicine has begun to use bamboo in pills and lotions.
Bamboo is one of the most versatile materials on the planet. Not only can it make all kinds of products, growing it helps the environment in so many ways.
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How to Build With Bamboo: 19 Projects You Can Do at Home (Paperback)
15 amazing things you can do with bamboo / Jessica Miley, Interesting Engineering, October 19, 2018
25 fascinating things you need to know about bamboo / Prosumer’s Choice. June 21, 2017
1000 products made from bamboo / Stephane Schröder, Bamboo Import Europe. April 26, 2016
Bamboo architecture and construction with Oscar Hidalgo / notes by Cassandra Adams, Network Earth.org. 1998