Bamboo is now used in a wide variety of products, and is often promoted as an eco friendly material. Lucy Siegle asks the question: how eco friendly is bamboo really?
THE DILEMMA I have noticed that there is a lot of bamboo in eco clothing and towels, but I have also read something that suggests it isn’t very green to use bamboo in these products. I try to run an ethical household, is bamboo something I should buy?
Materials that scream “ethical” give me a headache. Especially bamboo. The introduction of this super-fast-growing grass into UK homes in the form of plates, bowls, paint brushes, bathroom towels and bedlinen was accompanied by much loud noise about its eco credentials. Bamboo textiles, in particular, were explicitly labelled as eco, green and/or good for the planet, suggesting that your towels or yoga leggings could single-handedly halt climate change.
Then last year regulators in the US and Canada stopped the party. They ordered the re-labelling of some 450,000 clothing and textile products from the marketable “eco-friendly” bamboo to the less-appealing “rayon”. Less appealing from a green point of view because producing rayon, aka viscose, is a highly polluting activity. Under the microscope scientists could see no difference between “bamboo” products and viscose, where the finished fibre is extruded from cellulose by applying a large amount of chemicals and results in hazardous air pollutants.
Bamboo’s eco credentials were in tatters. But this is unfair. As a material it has big plus points. Lately, product designers Kenneth Cobonpue and Albrecht Birkner have used it to make a lightweight concept car, the Phoenix, which surely deserves to wear an eco tag. The bamboo is woven with rattan, steel and nylon to make the body of the car, handmade by a team of craftsmen in just 10 days. It is strong and light and created without the heavy industry, huge energy and extensive tooling normally demanded in car production. It is also a beautiful thing.
But what of bath towels, a more prosaic bamboo item? Steven Handley of marketroyale.co.uk sells bamboo homewares and insists certified bamboo is eco – especially when compared with the main alternative, cotton. “Can it be right that cotton uses over 25% of all insecticides and 12% of all pesticides in the world, but is grown on only 3% of available farmland?” he asks (rhetorically, I imagine). Grown right, he insists, it also prevents soil erosion, sequesters 12 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (30% more than trees), is self seeding – meaning it need not be replanted (a boon in areas of economic hardship) – and is better able to survive drought and flooding than cotton.
But how do you know that it’s grown right and, more specifically, processed without harmful pollutants? First ask the retailer. There is no getting away from some chemical use – the cellulose must be dissolved into a viscose solution, but this should take place in what is called a closed-loop system where harmful chemicals are recovered and recycled. Wearchemistry.com bamboo clothes wear the Global Organic Textile standard. This quietly assures better bamboo, but it’s still best to avoid shouting.
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