Incorporating bamboo into our daily lives may be the key to effortless sustainability.
What is bamboo? While most minds will connect bamboo strictly to China, this tree-like grass can be found in several regions, including South America, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and northern Australia.
It's mostly found in humid, tropical climates but can be found thriving in other conditions as well. Bamboos belong to the grass family, Poaceae, and within its species, there are over 1400 types of bamboo. There are a select group of bamboo species that are some of the fastest-growing plants in the world, and some can reach 100 feet in height.
The smallest types of bamboo only grow to stand 4 inches in height. Despite being a tasty and beneficial meal to pandas in the Asian continent, humans are now considering if bamboo can be beneficial to a sustainable environment.
The conditions in which bamboo grows are one of the appealing factors of the grass. Bamboo regrows from its own roots, meaning it doesn't need to be replanted the way trees do. This factor alone sets itself apart from other plants.
It's renewable all on its own. Because of this, the roots stay put, leading to healthier, undisturbed soil. The fast growth cycle of bamboo also makes a convincing argument for its sustainability. Bamboo can mature in 1-5 years depending on the species, a rate that is faster than a majority of trees. If humankind relied more on bamboo, the turnaround time for growing bamboo would be shorter than with planting trees.
All of these characteristics start a conversation around the many ways in which bamboo can work as an alternative product in several sectors. From construction material to clothing, bamboo has a lot of promise. Currently, bamboo is already used as scaffolding and to build huts and homes in South-East Asia.
It's stronger than steel and provides benefits that other materials can not. In regards to clothing, the United Nations has acknowledged that traditional garment production uses more energy than aviation and shipping combined.
Fabric made from bamboo may be an alternative. Its farming potential is promising since bamboo requires little water and doesn't need pesticides or herbicides to thrive. Although the carbon footprint of international shipping is an important factor to bear in mind, if done responsibly, bamboo production for alternative uses could be a part of addressing the climate crisis.
Given the wide variety of products bamboo can be used for, there is a market eager to welcome another sustainable option. Many regard bamboo as environmentally neutral because it can absorb more carbon dioxide than trees.
As of now, China contributes about 71% of bamboo exports. Since the industry is currently dominated by China, other economies are beginning to address the demand for bamboo themselves to reduce dependence on imports. Bamboo is native in several locations, which is why Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, and the Dominican Republic have become traders of at least one kind of bamboo species.
The bamboo market is projected to hit USD 82.90 billion by 2028. From domestic to commercial purposes, bamboo products have a high potential for growth. This includes products like furniture, fabric, food, paper, cloth, and more.
As time passes, consumers are more invested in following a green lifestyle. As a result, many professionals in the home and interior design industry are falling in line with the trends of sustainable home goods and interior design. The compound annual growth rate for bamboo-based furniture is projected to be 5.0% between now and 2028.
Anji Tianzhen Bamboo Flooring Co. is one such company that falls under the construction goods category by specializing in flooring. Headquartered in the Anji city of the Zhejiang province, the company's products include bamboo flooring, flooring accessories and parts, bamboo planks, and more. Their business does particularly well with countries in North America, Europe, Australia, and other countries in Asia.
On the other side of the equator, Bamboo Australia maintains a nursery of 250 species of bamboo plants. Founded in 1989 by Durnford Dart, it was the first commercial bamboo available in the country. The company explains that bamboo plays a vital role in Australia's ecosystem by providing a renewable material so that Australia's native trees can thrive undisturbed, safe from deforestation. While tree plantations must be chopped down for use, bamboo continues growing even with stock removal. Bamboo Australia sells bamboo poles, screens, fences, benchtops, veneer, and lamelles.
Today, the construction sector contributes around 38% of carbon emissions globally. While brick and cement are perceived to be the modern materials for building our homes and various institutions, the long-standing history of bamboo as a construction material can alleviate the consequences of carbon pollution while also providing reliable structures.
Bamboo structures can be found in several countries. Before Spanish colonization, The Philippines had the Bahay Kubo, also known as a nipa hut, that was made mostly from bamboo and nipa palms.
They are still used today in communities further away from the city. Bamboo construction dates back thousands of years ago when the Chinese created treehouses with bamboo. Today, bamboo is used as a construction scaffolding substitute for rod reinforcement in concrete mixtures, pipes, and wind turbine blades; it’s also found in the skeleton of bridges. While the concept of bamboo buildings is nothing new, there have been a handful of western designers who have chosen to give new life to creating structures out of this steel-like grass.
Linda Garland is considered one of the pioneers of modern bamboo architecture. Born in Ireland, she began incorporating bamboo into her work as an interior designer in the 1970s after spending time in Indonesia, where bamboo can be found interwoven in the lifestyle there.
She went on to create the Environmental Bamboo Foundation in order to both promote bamboo as an alternative material and to replenish deforested lands with bamboo. Later on, with the help of Professor Walter Liese, the foundation developed treatment methods to preserve bamboo.
Moved by her work, Garland's friend, John Hardy stepped into the bamboo space. In 2007 he and an entire team created and built the Green School entirely from bamboo. The school is an academic institution educating students from pre-kindergarten to high school on the importance of nature and living sustainably.
John Hardy's daughter, Elora Hardy, is a sustainable designer and serves as the creative director of Ibuku, an architecture and design studio. She founded Ibuku in 2010 with the goal of expanding the evolution of bamboo construction. The bamboo Ibuku uses is harvested from the mountains of Java and Bali, where new shoots of bamboo grow each year.
The Ibuku team and Elora Hardy have developed a variety of uniquely designed homes in the Green Village, a collection of houses and villas that followed after the Green School. Both artful and functional, the structures are open concept with glass windows, but still function off the modern utilities of electricity, air conditioning, and running water. The structures are estimated to last at least 100 years, thanks to a process that extracts sugar from the bamboo, keeping insects and bugs away from consuming the plant.
The company even garnered the attention of AppleTV and was featured in an episode of the original series, Home. Debuting in 2021, the docu-series highlights groundbreaking homes around the world. Media attention at this level is evidence that forward-thinking companies and the sustainable products they create are guaranteed to capture the attention of consumers. As long as leaders like the Hardy family continue down the path of conscious creation and innovation, the earth may have a better chance at providing lasting life for its inhabitants.
Other than for construction, bamboo is also very popular as a food! It's no secret, considering bamboo is most widely known as being the main food source for the Giant Panda. Red pandas and lemurs also keep bamboo in their diets. However, animals aren't the only ones that can get nutrition from bamboo shoots. Humans can also reap the benefits of vitamins and fiber found in bamboo. The grass has mostly been consumed in regions where it grows, including India, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, and other countries in Asia.
As a low calorie and low fat food, humans have been eating bamboo shoots for generations. Bamboo can also be converted into a biofuel, used as a textile, and made into works of art. Throughout history, people have crafted musical instruments like flutes and drums from bamboo. In Japan, takezaiku is a traditional craft that creates decorative art from bamboo.
With all the applications of bamboo and a growing demand, farmers are an essential piece of the operation. In the United States, bamboo can be planted anywhere that corn usually grows.
The larger bamboo species are best grown in tropic and subtropic climates, but varieties like the Phyllostachys species can still grow in the U.S. The very first commercial bamboo farm in the country was Mixon Farms, located in Florida. Originally a fruit farm, their first harvest of bamboo was in 2019.
Mixon Farms hopes that the bamboo will be a long-standing and profitable crop during a time where citrus trees struggle with the effects of climate change and pests. While a significant step forward for the domestic industry, bamboo has been grown in the country years prior on a smaller scale. Just above Florida resides Thigpen Trail Bamboo Farm in Georgia.
The family-owned farm cultivates around 100 types of bamboo. The farm and nursery take the extra step to ensure the species they plant are not harmful to the local habitats. Domestically grown bamboo is especially enticing when considering the tariff wars that often occur with international trading. Furthermore, homegrown bamboo cuts down on our carbon footprint significantly.
Bamboo, in its natural growing state, yields 35% more oxygen compared to a tree with equal mass. It can also take in 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. It is no question that this plant is a wonderful contributor to the environment all on its own.
When harvested, its roots remain undisturbed since the plant continually regrows rather than needing to be planted again. This allows the soil below to remain intact, along with the ecosystem below the ground. This leads to less erosion and more water absorption.
Human interference through bamboo production could threaten other wildlife if not handled with proper care. When bamboo is planted as a crop, natural wildlife and plants are cleared out to make room, upsetting the natural environments already existing.
While naturally occurring bamboo is beneficial, farmers and investors must be aware of how mass production could potentially disturb the ecosystem. Because the global economy relies on importing and exporting from long distances, there are some concerns around shipping as all commercial sales of bamboo are in China.
Shipping to other countries like the U.S. requires a lot of energy output. Currently, there are not many reports on how China grows and regulates its bamboo farms.
When evaluating bamboo-derived products, there are a handful of factors to consider when determining their sustainability. The source location of the product and how it's shipped can make a huge difference when considering its carbon footprint. Investing in a bamboo product that is produced domestically will have less of an impact than a product that is shipped internationally.
Some products may require a lot of energy to process and sometimes even chemicals that might negate the benefits of using bamboo. Consumers who want to invest in products in the most conscious way possible should also consider other eco-friendly options that work just as well as a bamboo product. Overall, certain bamboo products can still be composted and renewed, whereas plastics cannot.
For example, converting the strong shoots of bamboo into a soft wearable fabric is no easy process. In fact, creating a quality product, even if using organic bamboo, still relies on chemicals to get the job done. In current processes, bamboo pulp must be dissolved in a chemical solution. Afterward, it's made into yarn and is solidified again using chemicals. The yarn will then come into contact with dyes or bleach. Formaldehyde is often incorporated into the process as well. Formaldehyde's properties allow clothing to be more resistant to wrinkling and is not solely used with bamboo textiles but a variety of traditional fabrics like cotton.
As we continue to pursue new advancements in architecture and design, we can look at bamboo as a substantial alternative. The resourcefulness of bamboo has greatly increased in international affairs – gaining respect in the food, biofuel, textiles, construction, and other modern industries. With its quick turn around rate, largely reproduced quantities, eco-friendly characteristics, and durable versatility, bamboo is the material of the future – many of the modern leaders would agree. From textiles to advanced products to new means for design, bamboo has now reinforced the meaning of sustainability.
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