Bamboo- eco wonder or damaging fad
by Hanna Pumfrey
A few months ago, when I started this journey, in a fit of eco-enthusiasm i purchased a bamboo toothbrush. But could my purchase may have been premature?
If you look at many ‘green’ publications or on the feeds of many ethical influencers you will regularly see bamboo being proclaimed the world’s most renewable material. And on the surface what’s not to love; it’s naturally pest resistant, grows incredibly fast and can help rebuild eroded soil.
A bamboo plant takes just three to four years to go from seed to harvest and because its root network is so extensive it doesn’t even need to be replanted- it just starts shooting up again. This, compared to the lengthy lifecycle of a tree is great news for paper guzzlers. Furthermore, due to its fast growth, bamboo can be grown without the use of fertilisers and pesticides.
Inevitably though, as demand for bamboo products grows, it is befalling the same fate as many of our resources- overconsumption. China is the only country that grows bamboo on a commercial scale. This commercial growth reduces biodiversity and increases pests (enter the need for pesticide use in bamboo farming). It is also leading to deforestation as Chinese farmers begin to clear natural forestland to grown more bamboo. Bye Bye Pandas…
We also have to give thought to the manufacturing process. Many of the companies using bamboo fibres say they are producing bamboo organically i.e. using processes that do not use environmentally harmful bleaches and processes. But the soil association doesn’t give certification to any bamboo clothing- telling perhaps?
In short, although having many sustainable qualities bamboo processing fails to meet many ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ regulations as the process needed to break down the bamboo to make the fibres is very like that used to make viscose. This is a chemical process which involves cooking the bamboo in a cocktail of chemical solvents - primarily sodium hydroxide (lye, or caustic soda, as it's more commonly known) and carbon disulfide. Both are known to be harmful to human health, and sodium hydroxide can harm aquatic life when released into the water supply.
So, it's not all bad, but bamboo production still has a long way to go to be truly sustainable, and transparent. Our advice on bamboo products would be to be mindful of and find out how the company you are buying from is processing the bamboo before purchasing.
I bought a humble brush and it looks like I can breathe a sigh of relief. Humble Brush's website appears to be 100% transparent. The bamboo they use to make their toothbrushes is naturally grown to the desired height and harvested in mainland in China. The processing, production and packaging are all done by hand. The bamboo gets cut into strips, steamed and stripped of the tough outer layer. It dries in the sun and then gets cut into workable pieces. The outside of the material gets stripped again, and the sides are hand-crafted to form the optimal shape. Holes are drilled into the head, the entire brush is sanded and our logo is laser burned into the handle. It is then treated with natural wax and the bristles are inserted. And it even comes in biodegradable packaging to boot. Looks like the guys at humble have thought about everything!
As always, we’re interested to know your opinions on how ethical you think certain fabrics are. With many ethical designers using these materials, are we all being taken in by the materials just because they are different, or are they greener? Please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments section below.