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Is bamboo really sustainable?

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by Shraddha Uchil

Bamboo. It might be a humble grass, but so integral is it to Asia that it has permeated the culture of the continent in myriad ways thanks to its utilitarian value. It finds a place on the dinner table — its young shoots can be cooked or fermented and eaten — as well as in Chinese medicine cabinets. The raw leaves serve as fodder for livestock, and the tall, bendy stems make for the perfect scaffolding material in construction. Poets and writers have sung its praises, and artists have created vivid paintings depicting the beautiful grass.

In recent years, bamboo has gone from being merely a versatile material to becoming the poster child for sustainability, with brands urging you to opt for it over plastic and even cotton. From bamboo utensils and toothbrushes to clothes and flooring, the panda’s favourite snack now finds use in pretty much every part of your house.

In theory, it’s a no-brainer. After all, bamboo grows really fast, it doesn’t require fertilisers or pesticides, and it also regenerates naturally, so it doesn’t need to be replanted once harvested. As a bonus, it generates up to 35 per cent more oxygen than similar plants. And when you compare it to cotton cultivation, which eats up a lot of water, pesticides and labour, there’s very little to not like about this supergrass.

Image Source: Unsplash

So, where’s the catch? Before you start stocking up on bamboo products, here are a few things to consider. While bamboo can be grown sustainably, doesn’t mean it always is. A majority of bamboo is grown in China, a country that isn’t too open about how much land it has cleared for bamboo production, or shared how intensively it is being harvested. Moreover, although the crop doesn’t require the use of pesticides, there is no way of knowing whether or not pesticides are being used to maximise output.

Now, let’s say the bamboo product you’re using is ethically sourced — you have made sure you know exactly where it comes from, and how it was grown. So far, so good. But the next problem arises when it comes to transforming bamboo from a plant into a usable textile.

This is because for it to be rendered into a comfortable fabric, the cellulose in the bamboo has to be dissolved into a pulp using two toxic chemicals — sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. The resultant viscose is then passed through a machine into a chemical bath to form fibres.  Once washed and bleached, you get the soft, breathable fabric that can be used to make clothing and bedlinen. Unfortunately, by the end of this process, what you have can’t even be called bamboo — it is just another form of rayon. The Lyocell process, unlike the viscose method just described, uses less toxic chemicals and a closed-loop manufacturing process, but is nevertheless damaging to the environment, but to a smaller degree.

This is not to say that all bamboo fabric is unsustainably produced. There exists a less harmful method that involves mechanically combing out the bamboo fibres and then spinning them into a fabric that is called bamboo linen. This technique uses less water, energy and chemicals, but most companies shun this process due to the costs and labour involved. Lastly, the resultant fabric doesn’t have that smooth-as-butter feel that you would achieve using the former method.

So, the next time you’re out shopping, be a little wary of that ‘Made from Bamboo’ label on that t-shirt. Instead of choosing something green, you might just be falling prey to greenwashing.

Image Source: Unsplash

How to avoid getting bamboozled:

  1. Try to use bamboo in its raw, unmanipulated form. This includes bamboo kitchenware, toothbrushes, furniture and flooring.
  2. Opt for FSC certified bamboo whenever possible. At the very least, try to find out if your bamboo source is harming forests or wildlife.
  3. When it comes to choosing sustainable fabrics, pick recycled or certified organic cotton and hemp over bamboo.
  4. Look for companies that are 100 per cent transparent about their manufacturing process and then make your decision.
  5. If you have to buy bamboo clothing, choose bamboo linen over bamboo rayon, which is produced more sustainably.


Note: This article was initially published on Ethico India.

About the Author: Shraddha Uchil is the consulting features editor at Ethico. After nearly a decade writing about food and culture for major publications, she has currently settled into her role as a new mum. Now, it’s time to consider how she can help preserve the world for generations to come.

Youth Ki Awaaz is an open platform where anybody can publish. This post does not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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