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Why Bamboo?

The Reasons You Should Switch to Bamboo Products

October 26, 2019 - by Natalie Wilson

The other day I met up with some of my friends at an awesome outdoor bar called The Rayback Collective here in Boulder with a bunch of food trucks and amazing selection of beers. It was a bright sunny day in the mountains, so I was wearing my favorite pair of bamboo sunglasses. Everyone kept asking me where I got them, and what they were made of. We started talking about how bamboo is a great eco-friendly resources for all kinds of products and accessories.

Not Natalie!  Pretty awesome bamboo sunglasses though.

I decided to do a bit of research on all the properties of bamboo that make it so great for the environment and put together this page to share some of that knowledge with everyone.

So are bamboo products really as great for the environment as everyone is saying? Yes and no. Bamboo products are a great option for the environmentally conscious if they are made from whole bamboo and the production process does not make use of harsh chemicals that are typically found in bamboo fabric. In its natural state as a plant, bamboo is resistant to pests, fungus, and bacteria. It is biodegradable and regrows completely in as little as 3 years.

An Eco-Friendly Alternative

Of course, I'm not the first person to realize that bamboo is a natural, environmentally friendly resource. Bamboo has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for being an eco-friendly alternative to other types of materials, particularly plastic and cotton.

One of the primary characteristics of bamboo that makes it such a solid alternative to materials like cotton, wood, and plastic is that the growth properties of the bamboo plant make it extremely sustainable and renewable compared to other choices. However, there is a note of caution here. Some bamboo products, particularly those made from bamboo fabric, require extensive use of chemicals in their products. More on that below!

Some of the most notable properties of bamboo that make it stand out are:

  • Requires about 85% less water to grow than cotton
  • Does not require pesticides to grow since it is naturally pest resistant
  • Antibacterial and anti-fungal
  • Extremely fast growth means it is fully grown within 3 to 5 years
  • Products as much as 40% more oxygen than other plants
  • Absorbs almost 5 times as much carbon dioxide as other plants
  • Bamboo forests can help rebuild and nourish depleted soil

That's a pretty impressive list of environmental benefits from such a common plant! You would think this would have taken off a long time ago as a replacement for plastic in a whole variety of products from utensils and plates to toothbrushes and furniture. It is definitely great for a lot of these uses, but there are some things to watch out for since not all bamboo products are as beneficial as they seem at first.

Downsides to Bamboo as a Fabric (Most of the Time)

In addition to purchasing bamboo products from responsible brands who produce their goods with excellent methods to protect the environment, there are definitely issues with certain bamboo uses. The main problem is that when producing fabric from bamboo, companies often use a lot of harsh chemicals.

Since bamboo plants are quite hard, there is a lot of processing that goes into converting the natural bamboo into a soft fabric that can rival cotton. This processing often makes extensive use of chemicals including sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid. Definitely not environmentally friendly or good for your health and well-being!

The truth is that most manufacturers using these chemicals to produce fabric from bamboo are doing serious ecological harm by improper disposal of the chemicals. This is degrades some of the great properties of natural bamboo, and the runoff from the manufacturing plants can cause significant harm to the local environment.

If you stick to buying bamboo products that use the natural form of bamboo (so products like utensils, plates, bowls, toothbrushes, furniture, etc) then you are in great shape. These are virtually certain to be sustainable and eco-friendly. However, once you start looking at bamboo fabrics like bamboo sheets, socks, and towels, you need to take a lot more care in examining the manufacturer and brand that you are buying. This can be a bit tricky, but the buying guides I put together elsewhere on the site definitely took care to select only the highest quality brands out there.

Some Bamboo Fabrics You Should Consider

Just because there are some bamboo fabrics out there that are less than perfect, that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider upgrading your sheets, clothes, or towels, to a high-quality bamboo product. There are some options that are more environmentally friendly than others.

Part of the difference can be seen in what they call the bamboo fabric. You'll see terms like rayon, viscose, lyocell, Tencel, and "closed loop" thrown about. I wrote up a whole guide to the technical differences between these fabric types if you want a longer answer.

Bamboo Linen

In short, the ultimate in environmentally friendly bamboo fabric is for the fabric to be "bamboo linen" that is produced using a mechanical process. This means rather than using chemicals to break down the bamboo plant into fibers, the plants are instead crushed (mechanically) until they are pulp. The pulp is then pulled into fibers by machines that use no chemicals at all.

Bamboo Lyocell

Unfortunately, producing bamboo linen by a mechanical process is prohibitively expensive for making sheets and clothing, so you will almost never find that for sale. (I do not know of anyone currently producing sheets, towels, or clothing this way, but if you are definitely send me an email!) The next best alternative is bamboo lyocell. This is slightly superior to viscose from bamboo in that the chemicals used in production are 100% recycled (hence, the term "closed loop"). The etitude brand is well known for this type of fabric.

Viscose from Bamboo

Only slightly less environmentally friendly (but much softer and more comfortable) is viscose from bamboo. Most high-quality bamboo sheets you find will be viscose from bamboo, and should carry a "100% viscose from bamboo" label and designation from the seller's website. Companies such as Cariloha and Bamboo Supply Co are best known for these types of sheets.

So, if you are going to buy bamboo fabrics and want to make sure they are eco-friendly and healthy for your skin, then you do need to do a bit of research on the brand you are buying. BestBambooGuide's articles are definitely here to help you with that!

Benefits of Bamboo in Everyday Products

There are big benefits to using bamboo in everyday products besides its environmental benefits. Bamboo is one of the strongest plants available. The amount of actual bamboo you need to produce a strong and sturdy product is far less than comparable materials like wood or plastic. Just think of how much sturdier disposable plates or utensils made of bamboo are compared with similar products made from paper or plastic.

The natural fiber structure of bamboo is what gives it strength. This is especially true when compared to wood. This fiber structure which has unusually long fibers allows bamboo to maintain flexibility so that it is much less likely to break. This is especially useful in items that you use repeatedly like toothbrushes, utensils or plates. It also means the production of these products is much easier than wood counterparts, so that they are more cost effective and require fewer resources to produce.

You might not guess it, but there is a long tradition of using bamboo for construction of building, bridges, and boats in many asian countries. Although we're not sure we'd recommend building your next house out of nothing but bamboo, it is definitely strong enough for use in larger furniture items such as tables, shoe racks, and beds.

Sources of Bamboo

Although bamboo can grow in all sorts of environments, currently almost all bamboo grown at commercial scales is from China. This does present somewhat of a downside since the bamboo products need to be transported around the world, which has a pretty substantial carbon footprint. Of course, products made from less environmentally friendly materials are not necessarily produced locally either.

Bamboo does grow naturally in many places outside Asia, including Central and South America and Africa. However, the only country producing enough bamboo to use on a large scale right now is China. Some of the reason for this is historical: bamboo has played a critical role in China's economy for centuries. In addition to having natural bamboo growth, this historical tradition has led to lots of companies, factories, and expertise building up in China on how to most effectively use bamboo in every day products.

It would certainly be more benefitial if bamboo were grown and produced in more locations around the world. Particularly if it were closer to the locations that the end products are eventually used. Hopefully this is something that will happen as people in Europe and North America purchase more bamboo products, helping with the economies of scale necessary for local production in those regions.

Regulations and Certifications to Look Out For

If you are buying solid bamboo products there is not too much to look out for or worry about. The whole bamboo plant is relatively unprocessed, and has all the great natural properties outlined above.

If you are in the market for bamboo fabrics, then you need to take a more careful look at the labeling and the brand producing the fabric. All bamboo fiber produced for use in fabrics should have an Oeko-Tex 100 certification. This certification indicates that the fabric is free from chemicals that could irritate the skin.

This is especially important with bamboo fabrics since the chemicals used in production can irritate the skin. Oeko-Tex 100 certification guarantees that the fabric contains no trace chemicals left over from the production process. The standard includes all of the tests necessary to guarantee that the fabric is from:

  • heavy metals
  • formaledehyde
  • pesticides
  • cancer-causing dyestuffs
  • harmful preservative ingredients
  • synthetic compounds and allergens

To use the Oeko-Tex label on their products and marketing, manufacturers must submit their products to a range of tests across every step of production - from the raw bamboo to the fabric produced at the end. The certification must be renewed every year, and can be revoked if the manufacturer fails to comply with the standard.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Bamboo Products Recyclable?

Sure! If you are using solid bamboo products (anything other than bamboo fabric) then they are completely recyclable. They are also biodegradable and can be used in compost or other natural settings.

Is Bamboo Really More Sustainable Than Cotton?

Yes. Growing bamboo requires about 85% less water, does not require pesticides or fungicides, is highly renewable since it grows so quickly.

How Do I Know a Bamboo Fabric Has No Chemicals?

Check the certifications. Any manufacturer of bamboo fabric should have an Oeko-Tex 100 certification that guarantees it is free from chemicals left over from the manufacturing process.