How Eco-Friendly Is Bamboo?

Bamboo is making waves as an eco-chic new fabric, and growing environmental awareness has also boosted interest in bamboo flooring, building materials and furnishings. But just how earth-friendly is this resource?

A Q&A with EarthTalkTM, republished with permission.

Q. I’ve noticed that bamboo is very trendy right now, apparently for environmental reasons, in part. Can you enlighten?

– Eric M., via e-mail

A. Bamboo’s environmental benefits arise largely out of its ability to grow and spread quickly — in some cases three to four feet per day — without the need for fertilizers, pesticides or much water.

A bamboo grove also releases some 35 percent more oxygen into the air than a similar-sized stand of trees, and it matures (and can be replanted) within seven years (compared to 30-50 years for a stand of trees), helping to improve soil conditions and prevent erosion along the way. Bamboo is so fast-growing that it can yield 20 times more timber than trees on the same area. There are some 1,000 different species of bamboo growing in very diverse climates throughout the world, including the southeastern United States.

Today, heightened consumer environmental awareness has given sales of bamboo clothing, flooring, building materials and other items a huge boost.

As an attractive and sturdy alternative to hardwood flooring, bamboo flooring is tough to beat. According to Pacific Northwest green building supplier Ecohaus, bamboo is one of the firm’s top selling flooring options and is harder, more moisture resistant and more stable than even oak hardwoods. You'll also find bamboo room dividing screens, tableware and other furnishings for the home

Bamboo is also making waves in the clothing industry as an eco-chic and functional new fabric. Softer than cotton and with a texture more akin to silk or cashmere, bamboo clothing naturally draws moisture away from the skin, so it’s great for hot weather or for sweaty workouts. It also dries in about half the time as cotton clothing. Look for bamboo bedding, towels and rugs, too.

Some critics point out that the process of converting bamboo to fabric can take a heavy environmental toll, with the most cost-effective and widespread method involving a harsh chemical-based hydrolysis-alkalization process followed by multi-phase bleaching. The Green Guide counters, though, that bamboo still has a much lower environmental impact than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived nylon and polyester fabrics. And some brands including Gaiam are sourcing bamboo fabrics made with lower-eco-impact methods including stringent water purification steps.

Bamboo is also making inroads into the paper industry, though there are fears that too fast a transition there would threaten ecologically diverse bamboo forests across Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The Earth Island Institute, among other groups concerned about forest loss due to paper consumption, would instead like to see more research into using agricultural waste to make paper instead of wood pulp or bamboo.

Regardless, bamboo in all its forms might one day soon be one of the most important plants in the world.


Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it online, or send an e-mail. To read past columns, visit the EarthTalk archives.

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bluemoonnl's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 30 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/19/2008

I love bamboo! There are so many benefits to Bamboo over other options. However I have come to understand that there are very heavy chemicals used in the process of making bamboo into fabric. As far as other items made from bamboo I am unsure. In CT it is very difficult to find organic items of any kind. I have chosen an organic lifestyle for most of my life and thought that now that Bamboo is so available that I was making a good choice. However, this chemically based process has proven that it is still not an Eco choice.

Sunshine429's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 30 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 01/22/2009

Thank you Bluemoonnl!
I couldn't agree more, the chemicals invovled with making bamboo flooring or other 'hard'ware are quite questionable. I'm happy to see that gaiam chooses bamboo that has used a more 'eco-friendly' process.
Nevertheless, and even though Bamboo is fast growing , the majority of the growth is in Asia - therefore a great deal of fossil fuels are used in order to bring it to the States or to export it.

It's quite the catch22.
I personally try to go for organic AND local.

Anonymous's picture

Local sources are very readily available in the US. Florida, California and Texas has them.

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