The Softer Side of Bamboo

During the many environmental activist efforts in the 70's, a thought-provoking quote came to the forefront: "For what does it avail to save the tiger if you cannot save the jungle." That line represented a profound epiphany for many as so much intense energy was being focused on single environmental objectives, which were in fact, linked to bigger problems. What was the point of saving the whales, for example, if the ocean was not a healthy environment for them?

The answer to that question took root as the next big environmental movement: clean up your own back yard first! Many of us had hoped that this wave of individual responsibility would be carried forward. This call to action has prompted us to scrutinize, as we should, our consumer life, which is one of the most significant ways that we impact our world. After years of education and bleak news about the environment, many of us are beginning to truly evaluate the intention, action and sincerity of those who create the products we habitually buy, which are often mass produced goods.

When examining the topic of mass produced goods, one is quick to consider China and the major role it plays with merchandise trade around the world. Since it began trading heavily with the west, China has been given (and often earned) a bad reputation for its manufacturing and industrial practices. It may come as a surprise, however, as we look for greener ways of manufacturing products, that it is quite possible that China is the leading contributor of one of the most useful and environmentally beneficial manufacturing materials: bamboo.

While bamboo has long been associated with products such as flooring, window treatments, building materials and more, the softer side of bamboo is now taking center stage. With its hollow fiber and round, smooth texture, the fiber that is produced from Moso bamboo is soft and pleasing to those wearing it as clothing, and in cloth baby wipes, cloth diapers. It is also proving to be of superior quality in non-woven fiber products such as feminine napkins, disposable baby wipes and paper towels. Moso bamboo's strength, flexibility and ready availability have made it a dominant material throughout much of the world for centuries for textiles, fencing, furniture, food, construction material, paper, irrigation, medicine, musical instruments, beer, even diesel fuel. It also plays a very important role in the environment.

A Sustainable Superstar

Few raw materials have the potential for true sustainable production and consumption as bamboo. Botanically categorized as a grass and not a tree, bamboo is possibly the planet's most sustainable resource. Bamboo is the fastest growing grass and can shoot up a yard or more a day, making it an endurable natural resource. Bamboo reaches maturity quickly and is ready for harvesting in 2-4 years. Trees require much more time to mature, often as many as 50 years.

"But I thought organic cotton was the most environmentally friendly choice in fabric!" This is a common misconception that advertisers market heavily in our culture. It is indeed a natural product making it a wiser choice than petroleum-based nylon or polyester.  However, the farming and processing of non-organic cotton is incredibly unnatural and wasteful. It requires 5,285 gallons of water to produce the cotton for one t-shirt. That's nearly enough water to fill a large swimming pool! One acre of cotton can use approximately 14 pounds of pesticides which often carry five of the top nine cancer-causing chemicals. And cotton impacts the land in ways we rarely consider; it fragments habitat, destroys soil fertility, and causes pesticides and chemicals to be passed through the eco-system. Organic cotton, while a better choice than non-organic cotton, still uses mass amounts of water and only uses 40% of the plant for the production of textiles.

"I already use biodegradable toilet tissue and paper towels!"  Chances are that the biodegradable non-woven fiber products that you are using — the ones with bright green logos that speak to your environmental conscience — are made from tree pulp. Vast areas of forest have been devastated across North America to make non-woven fiber products using tree pulp. The bottom line is that if you see a bamboo alternative, it may be a better choice for a variety of reasons, but particularly because it does not require pesticides due to bamboo's inherent resistance to pests, a property commonly called "bamboo kun." Bamboo also has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties (properties which several scientific studies have concluded continue to exist at certain levels in processed bamboo textiles). Bamboo crops do not require irrigation since rainwater is sufficient to sustain the plant, and it is grown in areas where other crops would not typically survive, primarily on family farms.

Bamboo has also captured the attention of environmentalists because of its ability to take in five times as much green house gas while producing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees. What is most amazing about bamboo is that it does not require replanting after harvesting because its vast root network continually sprouts new shoots at an incredible rate, pulling in sunlight and greenhouse gases and converting them to new green growth. Bamboo provides a critical element in the balance of oxygen/carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and is an atmospheric and soil purifier, a truly phyto-regenerating plant that has many healing benefits for the biosphere.

It is important to note that the processing of bamboo isn't free of harmful practices. Currently chemicals are used to treat the pulp, and though they are typically in a closed-loop processing center — chemicals are re-used, not drained into the earth — they aren't eco friendly. However a process exists that doesn't use chemicals and relies on mechanical pulping and the use of enzymes to process the bamboo. Unfortunately, the process is costly and therefore only about 10% of bamboo is processed in this manner. Companies and consumers can demand environmentally-friendly processing, which will help guide the current practices of the processing plants.

While there is no perfect solution to the many environmental issues that plague our world, important efforts are being made in many sectors around the globe. Every so often, a significant shift occurs to revolutionize civilization and bamboo could be the leader in this next revolution.

Polly Tobin Goddard, a marketing consultant for green businesses on Cape Cod, MA, is a naturalist and conservationist who has dedicated her time for several years to non-profits around the country focusing on conservation, education, and leadership. Bob Wilds is an author of young adult novels, a longtime naturalist and conservationist who has spoken around the country about the plight of whales. Together, they helped found Bum Boosa Bamboo Baby Products. Visit www.bumboosa.com.