Bamboo is best known as a decorative screen in the garden or as a sprout in the Asian restaurant. But the plant can do much more: It serves as a rapidly renewable raw material for everyday goods such as furniture, bicycles, bioplastics and even toothbrushes.
Bamboo is not a tree, but a grass. The diversity of varieties ranges from a few centimeters high grasses to 40 meters high “forests”. The stalks of industrially usable varieties lignify during growth and can thus be used as an alternative to tree wood. Many bamboo species grow extremely fast (up to a meter per day!) And can be harvested after just three to five years. The plant grows in tropical areas around the equator; the Main importing country is China.
Fast renewable resource for durable furniture, bicycles & Co.
Because bamboo grows extremely fast, large quantities can be felled annually without endangering the stock. Many species of bamboo have large root systems, from which grow new plants constantly. Therefore, by beating a bamboo stalk not the whole plant dies – as is the case with trees. The fast growth also means that bamboo can save a lot of CO2 compared to trees.
In cultivation hardly any fertilizers, pesticides or artificial irrigation methods are used as the plants are extremely resistant. The immediate impact of bamboo cultivation on the environment is therefore comparatively low.
The wood industry also raves about the material properties of bamboo: Because the wood is very hard and dense, robust, durable furniture and floor coverings made of bamboo can be made. At the same time, it is light and flexible and is also suitable, for example, as a building material, as a covering for electrical appliances and even as a bicycle frame.
How fair is bamboo?
Much of the bamboo sold in this country currently comes from plantations in China. The environmental and social standards are comparatively low there. But the bamboo cultivation is so far little industrialized, but (still) predominantly kleinbäuerlich. “At the moment, the structures are such that many farmers grow and harvest small amounts of bamboo themselves,” says Walter Scheufele, board member of the Bamboo Technology Network Europe association and bamboo expert. “Bamboo grows in China mainly in mountainous country, where it is usually beaten by hand and then picked up from the roadside and transported on.”
Scheufele predicts that Ethiopia could in the future run out of China as the world’s most important bamboo supplier: there, the plant is planted more to push back the spreading desert. With a positive social side effect: “Bamboo cultivation will create jobs there that did not exist before,” says Scheufele. He sees great potential in the combination of bamboo cultivation with various development projects.
Because the bamboo industry is still in its infancy in Europe, there are few stable trade relationships and hardly any certifications. In principle, the cultivation of bamboo for the environment and workers is far more compatible than the production of other delicate agricultural products such as coffee, bananas or cotton. But to make sure that no primary forests have been destroyed for the plantations, it makes sense to pay attention to sustainable cultivation and, in case of doubt, to look at the trader for production conditions. The FSC® seal is still very rare for bamboo products. In world shops, in GEPA and in the corresponding online shops, there is often a small selection of fair trade bamboo products.
Bamboo instead of petroleum and tropical wood
Is bamboo better than plastic? Yes, in a double sense: it is used both as a substitute for plastic and as a starting material for bioplastics. Unlike oil, from which plastic is normally made, bamboo is a renewable resource. The extraction is also much less risky than that of crude oil. And: Unlike most conventional plastics, bamboo is biodegradable.
Bioplastics are often derived from edible plants such as corn or sugarcane; production is thus in direct competition with food production. “There are about 1400 varieties of bamboo and depending on the desired application, you can use very different,” says Scheufele. Those varieties that are processed into plastic or wood substitutes are thus generally not used as food. However: Better than Bioplastics is still no plastic.
Is bamboo better than wood from tropical forests? Yes, because compared to tropical trees, which often have a very slow growth rate of 70 or 80 years, it grows much faster. The bamboo harvest does not endanger the sensitive ecosystem of the rainforest, which is an important habitat and CO2 storage.
Bamboo instead of a beech?
Whether bamboo as a wood substitute is “better” than native wood, we can not answer unequivocally according to the current state. Although it is inherently more sustainable than the wood of most trees due to its extremely fast growth, frequent harvest and high CO2 storage capacity.
However, the transport routes of bamboo to Europe are long and cause large amounts of harmful greenhouse gases. In addition, German forests are largely managed sustainably and therefore need less protection than tropical forests. Ultimately, one must wait for the further development of the still small market – until then “bamboo or wood?” Is above all a question of availability and taste.