Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Navigating the Bamboo Wagon

When I was registering for our wedding, a few years back, I asked my very particular aunt Patricia to recommend sturdy kitchen products. Among her many recommendations were bamboo cutting boards because, she said, they are light and bamboo is more sustainable to harvest than many of the woods we traditionally use for the likes of chopping upon.

Since then, I’ve noticed bamboo products popping up all over the place: in clothing, furniture, cooking utensils, diapers, and even, as a reader pointed out awhile back disposable plates. In other words bamboo, like hemp did a few years back, has entered into popular green-consciousness as a miracle child. It is the product you don’t have to feel guilty about buying, or perhaps even, you could feel proud about buying.

The idea behind the bamboo boom is that bamboo isn’t actually a tree, it’s grass. Thus, it can be harvested and within three years, the population will have regenerated. The shoots send out an immense amount of oxygen into the air. Moreover, the ‘wood’ as my aunt pointed out, is light but durable. Clothes made from bamboo are very, very soft and hypoallergenic. As far as I can tell, these are the primary reasons so many people have been so enthusiastic about bamboo products.

Of course, when anybody tells me they’ve found the perfect product, the one you can use endlessly, the all good source for x, y, or z, I hesitate. I begin feeling a little unsettled and squeamish. I smile noncommittally. I sneak into my skeptics den, first chance I get. I Google it.

My first foray into the world wide web on the matter of bamboo turned up numerous websites about how Japan’s insatiable need for disposable bamboo chopsticks was depleting bamboo forests in China. Several animal species rely on them. Panda bears, for example, eat them. Humans in the region of the forests rely on them to clean up the atmosphere. So while it’s true they aren’t ancient Redwoods, they function the way trees do in regards to the ecosystem they exist in.

Further searching led me to a few stories about how difficult it is to monitor the manufacturing of bamboo: like any process in which pulp is made into product, a number of toxic chemicals are needed to enable the process. There is no regulatory system governing the way these chemicals are disposed of. Although many companies state that they responsibly harvest bamboo, because there’s no regulatory system, consumers need to take the companies’ word for it.

I am certainly not an expert on bamboo. But it seems strange that this half of the world (where the US is) thinks of bamboo as an unending supply of miracle pulp, whereas campaigns on the other, bamboo-growing side of the world are encouraging people to investigate the realities of deforestation. There seems to be a disconnect between desire (the perfect green building material/fiber exists), possibility (it is possible to grow and harvest bamboo responsibly), and reality (but it doesn’t always happen, and the forests are being depleted.

Does this mean I think bamboo is bad? Of course not. The advantages of responsibly grown and harvested bamboo are well documented. Though I am skeptical about the existence of wonder products, I do believe it is possible and likely that many of the companies claiming to responsibly harvest bamboo are doing so. Probably a number of them aren’t. The problem, as I see it, is that there’s no easy way for me discern the history of whatever bamboo I buy.

So far as I can see, the industry isn’t regulated enough for ecologically minded folks to embark on a bamboo product free for all. I do hope that in time manufacturers and companies can benefit from bamboo’s versatility, and that it will be easier for consumers to trust their bamboo isn’t some Giant Panda’s lost lunch or the cause of some river’s ailing fish.

For me, this means that I might buy a couple bamboo products from companies I trust for some reason or another, but I’m not going to go looking for bamboo like it’s the grail of green. I might get a chopping board one day, or a bamboo spoon. Bamboo furniture? I think it’s better to buy used wood, if it’s possible. Bamboo clothes? Maybe organic bamboo I know the source of, but nothing I’ve read has convinced me regular bamboo clothing is more ecological than, say, rayon (a wood pulp broken down into fibers).

And, getting to the question a reader posed many months ago, and that spawned this post, how do I feel about disposable bamboo plates? If disposable chopsticks are such a huge issue, I can’t see how disposable plates wouldn’t be. Moreover, I fail to see anything green about a product made to throw away after a single use, even if you can compost it.

On The Benefits of Bamboo:
Bamboo Renewability
Bamboo A Versatile and Renewable Resource
Disposable Bamboo Dinner Plates

On The Troubles With Bamboo:
Bamboo Flooring: Is it Really Treehugger Green
World Bamboo Diversity Falling to Deforestation
Bamboo Paper: Not Forest-Friendly
Loss of Bamboo Threatens Rare Animal Species
Chopsticks Economics and the My Hashi Boom


Tim said...

You missed one massive problem. Bamboo could be the next Kudzu. It's massively invasive and can even tear buildings down over time by getting into their foundations and walls. While it's great if harvested responsibly, we really want to be sure that people aren't just planting fields of it and walking away.

Henitsirk said...

Wow, I had no idea that people were making disposable bamboo plates. That makes no sense!

We have a bamboo cutting board, which seems serviceable. I've thought about getting bamboo bowls, but they're outside my normal price range.

Also: not all bamboo is invasive. There are clumping forms, though I don't know if those are the kind that people use to make these products. The running forms can definitely be a problem.

I wonder if anyone has figured out a way to take all those disposable chopsticks and make them into flooring or other products? Now that could be very green!

MaGreen said...

there's a man, whose website you could google, who makes art out of disposed of chopsticks. lampshades and the like. and probably other artists doing similar thing because the no-disposable-chopstick movement is huge in japan.

Anonymous said...

I'm in agreement on the "disposable" part (I've been using the same "disposable" plastic straw in my cup at work for nearly a year) but thank you for addressing the bamboo part of the question. It certainly has been marketed as you describe!