The driving force behind any construction material is how cost-effective it is. Sadly this often results in practices that exploit the environment including the people used in the production process. With growing concerns over the impact of humans on our environment, bamboo is potentially one of the success stories. But is bamboo sustainable enough?
Why is bamboo sustainable?
Bamboo is a fast-growing plant. Incredibly, some species grow up to 1.2m per day! The plants can reach a harvestable height within 3-5 years. So whilst wood is still a renewable resource, trees used in the timber industry will take between 20 and 60 years to reach suitable felling heights. Bamboo has a higher yield because it “outgrows” trees.
When you cut down a tree for its wood, you kill the tree. When you cut down bamboo, it continues to grow as the base and roots remain intact. This helps prevent soil erosion often associated with deforestation. The continual growth of bamboo also means it is continually taking carbon from the atmosphere. Plus bamboo forests spew out more oxygen than hardwood forests by 30%.
Bamboo happily grows in inaccessible areas where it wouldn’t be possible to farm timber such as slopes and smaller plots of land. It grows in abundance across Asia and is sometimes seen as a problem plant because of its fast-growing and prolific nature. Furthermore, growing bamboo in its natural habitat means its production also has a much smaller impact on the local ecosystem including no requirement for irrigation or fertiliser.
Because of its suitability for small-scale farming, bamboo also supports local economies and their small, independent farmers. Communities are safe from deforestation or exploitation by logging corporations as well. Bamboo can be cut by hand eliminating the need for energy-consuming machinery.
Bamboo also has potential as a biofuel. It is a high-carbon material and so is an obvious choice for converting into a biofuel. India is leading the way by using bamboo as a biofuel due to the plant’s abundance in its northern region. Whilst its use as a fuel is still in an experimental stage, it has the potential to contribute to greener fuels industries.
How does bamboo compare to hardwood as a material?
Bamboo is waterproof meaning it is easier to clean and has better stain-resistance than hardwood. This is a great plus when using bamboo as wooden flooring. Whilst all wood has antibacterial properties, bamboo is particularly so making it “cleaner” overall when compared to normal wood.
Hardness is an important factor when considering a construction material. For wooden flooring, the hardness of the wood effects how durable the flooring is. The hardness of wood comes from its fibre density. Hardness is measured using the Janka Hardness Test. This equates to the force required to embed a steel ball half its diameter into the wood.
Natural bamboo has a hardness of 1300-1400 which is comparable to birch (1260), beech (1300) and oak (1360). Carbonised bamboo (heat treated to darken its natural colour) has a hardness of 1000-1100 which is still hard than pine (870).
Bamboo scaffolding is the norm across China but bamboo can even be an alternative to steel for reinforcing concrete. So regardless of the question is bamboo sustainable, it’s certainly extremely versatile.
What are the environmental impacts of bamboo?
Bamboo cannot be grown on a significant, sustainable scale outside of Asia so all of the bamboo products in use in the West are imported. Around 80% of bamboo is grown in China, so there is the emission cost in transporting it around the globe to Europe and the USA. However, the environmental impact of shipping bamboo across the Pacific may not appear all that bad. It is comparable with logging transportation across the Americas, including within the USA itself.
Asia has less regulation than western nations regarding the use of pesticides and other chemicals used in the farming process.
With the demand for bamboo increasing so too is the financial temptation. Local farmers may choose to destroy local habitats in order to increase bamboo growth opportunities.
When asking is bamboo sustainable, it isn’t just the growing and harvesting that requires consideration. The ease with which the material can be transformed into a usable product is important too. As bamboo is a slender plant it requires additional processing to create planks. Timber can quickly be cut into ready-to-use planks. Bamboo needs to be glued together and that requires an adhesive – which is an additional chemical. There is also an additional energy cost to consider especially if the bamboo is carbonised to create a darker shade. However, there is less wastage unlike when turning timber into planks.
Bamboo as a textile is a bad idea due to the significant chemical use in its production.
There is no official grading system for the quality of bamboo used in flooring or furniture so quality-control of a final product may also be an issue. You can look for the FSC logo on a bamboo product which will mean that it has come from a more sustainable source.
Whilst there will always be an impact with using natural resources, it’s important to understand the relative impact each material has so we can limit or even mitigate the environmental costs. So, is bamboo sustainable? Well, it can be and where you are on the planet is a big factor. The use of bamboo in western countries may ease the rate of destruction of the rainforest in South America. But if all it does is shift the deforestation to other places on the planet, then there is no real benefit. As with any natural resource, it needs proper management otherwise it will become no different to the hardwood forests.
Discover ideas for using bamboo plants in your interiors from our blog post artificial bamboo tree inspiration.