Everything You Never Knew You Wanted To Know About Bamboo (Which Is Why You Didn’t Ask)
Imagine a plant that is so massively useful it can be used for food, textiles and clothing, commercial building materials, boat construction, wind turbine blades, furniture, musical instruments, flooring, scaffolding, bridge building, bicycles and cars, paper, medicine, beer brewing, wine-making, water desalination, household and kitchen goods, animal feed and landscaping.
Now imagine that it’s the fastest-growing plant on earth, in some cases growing more than three feet each day, even in soil conditions that would be too poor for most plants. Think about it having the ability to suck up about four times as much carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere as other plants, and release about 35 percent more oxygen in its respiration process. Finally, imagine that it’s so hardy and durable, it can survive the detonation of an atomic bomb.
It’s bamboo, a species of plant (it’s technically a grass) that grows all over the world (indigenous to every content except Europe and Antarctica) in conditions ranging from tropical rainforest to snowy, cold and mountainous. Many species of bamboo (and there are lots) can reach their full growth height and girth in a single growing season. If you’ve ever been silly enough to plant it in your yard, you’ll know that it can take over an entire residential plot of land in just a few years and is nearly impossible to kill or restrain. It’s also three times harder than oak in some cases, and naturally pest- and fungus-resistant. And the atomic detonation? After the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan at the end of World War 2, bamboo was found to be alive – and still growing – closer to the blast epicenter than any other living thing.
While bamboo has been used in Asia for a variety of uses for millennia, the West is only just catching on to commercial uses. What makes it so compelling is that its incredibly fast growth makes it extraordinarily sustainable: a small amount of land planted with bamboo, properly nurtured, can yield a great deal of raw materials – far greater than any other crop grown for fiber. If you flip through a “green” goods catalog today, you’ll find consumer goods made of bamboo from underwear to shower curtains.
Given its green credentials, it’s not a big surprise that the bamboo goods industry is expected to be worth about $25 billion by the year 2012. Once the provenance of specialty, green “eco” business, bamboo products of all stripes can now be found in do-it-yourself superstores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Building materials. While mainstream home improvement stores in the West tend to use it in a very processed way: hardwood flooring or doors, for example, or plywood for home construction, in Asia it’s used in a variety of ways, even in its natural form. Because it is so fast-growing and somewhat flexible, it can be “trained” to grow in certain ways for customized building projects: in an arc for a window in a house or a roof line, for example. In Asia – even in large metropolises like Hong Kong – bamboo is used for scaffolding to build skyscrapers. It’s cheap and plentiful, has tensile strength approaching that of steel (it can reportedly withstand forces of up to 52,000 pounds per square inch) and can be trained into custom shapes to suit the builder’s purpose.
Food. No, you don’t have to be a panda or a golden lemur to eat bamboo (though that does help). Bamboo shoots are used widely in Asia in all forms: fresh, dried, shredded, pickled, braised, fermented and curried. They can be bought all across Asia and in Western specialty stores in either fresh or canned forms. Because the young stalks are full of sap that has high sugar content, the sap is often used to make wine, sake and beer across Asia. One important safety tip, however, is to make sure you know what you’re doing when you harvest and eat bamboo shoots. Some species of bamboo (giant bamboo, for starters) contain cyanide, which has a tendency to end dinner parties rapidly and on a rather sour note.
Textiles. Bamboo fibers are too short to spin into thread or yarn in a traditional manner, so bamboo textiles are a relatively new phenomenon. Once upon a time, however, bamboo was widely used for women’s garments that required a rigid structure: bustles, hoop skirts and as the boning for corsets. Since women’s clothing fashions are no longer quite so sadistic, bamboo is now being used to weave cloth and other textiles thanks to newer technologies (notably, a 2003 patent filed by Chinese inventors) that can cope with the short fiber, turning the plant’s cellulose into yarn. Prior to this invention, bamboo fibers were “cooked” with caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, resulting in a kind of rayon that, in the U.S., had to be labeled as “rayon” rather than “bamboo.” The prior process also wasn’t very eco-friendly.
The result of the newer processes, bamboo viscose fiber, is extremely soft and breathable. And since bamboo is fast-growing and naturally resistant to pests, it can be grown with little to no use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, creating naturally organic fiber. It also uses about half as much water as cotton plants. For that reason, clothing made from bamboo is triply eco-friendly: it’s sustainable, organic and saves water. Additionally, unlike cotton, bamboo is not uprooted when it’s harvested: even after most of the plant is cut, the base and root system remain alive, putting out new shoots, eliminating the soil erosion inherent in cotton farming. While cotton yields about one to two tons of raw material per hectare (about two and a half acres), bamboo yields 60 tons from the same area of growing space.
Sporting goods. As bamboo is lightweight, flexible and strong, sporting goods manufacturers are beginning to recognize its value
in replacing a number of materials – carbon fiber for bicycles, for starters. A company in California called Calfee Design that makes bicycles from bamboo claims that its vibration damping qualities are second to none. Fly-fishing rods have been made from bamboo for some time – fly fishers who build and use bamboo rods are very nearly a cult, so passionate are they – and sporting goods manufacturers are beginning to recognize bamboo’s abilities to replace fiberglass. As a result, the sporting goods marketplace is beginning to see surfboards and skateboards made from bamboo.
What’s next? How about cheap electric cars? Japan’s Kyoto University has developed a concept car made from bamboo. The entire
car, called the BamGoo, weighs only about 132 pounds (60 kilograms), and can run 50 kilometers (about 37 miles) per charge. While you might not see them on U.S. highways any time in the near future – 37 miles is a short range, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be in a high-speed accident in one unless you have a death wish – such vehicles may help fill local needs in rural or suburban areas of Asia, keeping cheap, mass-produced traditional gasoline-burning cars off the roads.
Bamboo carbon (or charcoal) has also proven to be very effective in water desalination. Both traditional Chinese medicine and traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) use compounds derived from bamboo that supposedly bring down fever and clear chest congestion. And more on the cutting edge, bamboo fibers are being used in the manufacture of epoxy composite materials: the bamboo increases the strength and tensile properties, and decreases the weight, of the composite.
So…you can eat it and drink it (even get drunk on it), you can wear it, sleep under it, shower with it, ride it, drive it, surf it, fish with it, play music with it, build your house with it, cover your floors with it, clean the air with it and landscape with it. And if you’re a panda or a lemur, your very life may depend on it.