What one plant can provide furniture, kitchen tools, towels, clothing, and even ingredients for meals? Bamboo. Bamboo grows on every continent except Europe and Antarctica, but it occupies a special place in Asian culture and history. The ancient Chinese used it to make the earliest firearms. They also learned to use bamboo shoots as food. Modern China has led the way in developing techniques to make bamboo fabric.
Bamboo as a crop
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, sometimes growing as tall as 100 feet.
The entire culm reaches full height and girth in three or four months and is ready for harvest (for everything but edible bamboo shoots) in about three years.
Besides whatever products can be made from it, bamboo serves well in the construction of wetlands and other land and water reclamation projects.
Bamboo can be an invasive weed when it grows where it’s not wanted, but that has a big advantage. Unlike other crops, 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.
On the other hand, cutting down a tree for lumber kills it, and it will take about forty 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.Bamboo also emits about a third more oxygen than a stand of trees of similar size.
Bamboo in construction and crafts
Bamboo is at least as strong as wood and has greater tensile strength than steel. The ancient Chinese crossed rivers on suspension bridges made of bamboo. All highway construction scaffolding in Hong Kong is made of bamboo to this day.
In Latin America as well as Asia, bamboo has long been used for both walls and floors in building construction, although not so much today as formerly. Latin Americans at least no longer like the appearance of bamboo siding.
Such projects require large rods. Shorter and thinner pieces have long been used for musical instruments (especially various flutes, tuned percussion instruments, and even organ pipes) fishing rods, baskets, and writing implements. Some manufacturers today use bamboo to make paper, too.
Laminates can be made from bamboo and used for all the same things as wood laminates. You can get bamboo floors, cabinetry, and furniture. Because bamboo is inherently antimicrobial, bamboo cutting boards are much safer than wooden ones. There are many other uses for bamboo as compared to wood that I won’t take space here to describe or even list.
Bamboo fabric is inevitably described as luxuriously 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.
In the US, the Federal Trade Commission regards bamboo fabric as a kind of rayon because of the chemical treatments necessary to make it and disallows claims that anything can be advertised as 100% bamboo fabric.
It also claims that the process eliminates bamboo’s inherent antimicrobial properties and cannot be considered an environmentally friendly manufacturing process. As far as I know, advertisers in other countries can legally make these claims.
[See my later post Bamboo fabric: is it eco-friendly? for scientific refutation of the FTC’s claim.]
Despite these legal limitations on environmental claims, 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. And fertilizer is just another petrochemical.
Links: Information and resources about bamboo from around the world / EBS Great Britain: The Bamboo Society
Bamboo architecture and construction with Oscar Hidalgo / Network Earth.org
Bamboo fabric: the not-so-green truth / Consumer Reports — link no longer works as of 5/9/16.
Photo credit: ©annieoi76
You should follow me on twitter here, face book here, and google+ herehttp://eco.allpurposeguru.com/2012/02/bamboo-fabric-is-it-eco-friendly/