Faculty Perspective: Is the “Bamboo Craze” Here To Stay?

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2023 12:00 AM
Categories: School of Health and Natural Sciences | Pressroom | Faculty/Staff

Cochran, GA

Image: Unsplash

The "bamboo craze" refers to the growing popularity and widespread fascination with bamboo as a versatile and sustainable material. Bamboo, a fast-growing plant known for its strength and durability, has gained immense attention in recent years due to its eco-friendly properties and aesthetic appeal. Its rapid growth rate and regenerative nature make it a highly sustainable alternative to traditional hardwoods, which take much longer to grow and replenish. We asked Dr. Sharon Mozley-Standridge, MGA associate professor of biology, to weigh in on the bamboo craze.

Why are businesses advertising that everything can be made from bamboo? Because bamboo is more environmentally friendly! At least that is what many businesses touting their bamboo-based products will tell you on their company websites. The appearance of clothes, sheets, toothbrushes, straws, toilet paper, diapers, tampons, flooring and more labeled as containing or composed of “bamboo” in U.S. stores like Target, Walmart, Kroger, Home Depot, and Lowes, as well as by direct-to-consumer internet companies like Bamigo, has been steadily increasing since the 1990s.

But the use of bamboo by humans is nothing new. Bamboo as a natural material has been utilized for several millennia throughout the world to make arrowheads, buildings, boats, and shoes mainly in tropical areas where bamboo grows wild as a native species such as South America, Asia and Africa. Young shoots of bamboo have a good nutritional profile as a source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, fiber, and minerals while also low in fat. Many Asian cultures in countries like China, Vietnam, and India still incorporate bamboo as part of their traditional cuisines and rely on bamboo as a source of housing material.

Western interest in using bamboo actually started back in the 1980s as both construction and textile industries in the United States and Europe wanted to find more environmentally (and financially) friendly alternatives to traditional wood and cotton. Bamboo has a faster growth rate versus tree species grown for wood as well as a higher yield in a shorter amount of time (3-5 years for bamboo versus 20-30 for wood). Harvesting of bamboo does not require removal of as much material as wood and, because bamboo can regrow quicker from the left-behind roots as clones, not as much re-planting is required as there is with wood.

Bamboo has been successfully used to restore damaged terrestrial ecosystems in India and China due to its ability to adapt to disturbed soils, retain nutrients, improve soil fertility, and reduce erosion (which in turn protects local watersheds from excess nutrient run-off which is an issue for both wood and cotton). One of the more commonly listed reasons for bamboo being more environmentally friendly than wood is the ability of bamboo to sequester atmospheric carbon in greater amounts, though exact numbers are hard to determine and more research needs to done to prove this point. As a building material, dried mature bamboo is very strong but flexible making it ideal for bridges, stairs, columns, arches or roofs. For fabric, cotton can have a higher negative environmental impact due to the amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides required to grow cotton versus bamboo. Bamboo fabrics allow for greater heat dissipation from the body in hotter, more humid environments than cotton fabrics and are considered softer than cotton which may be a selling point for many consumers.

Does that mean everything that used to be made with wood or cotton will start to be made of bamboo? Probably not. While bamboo does have some advantages over wood and cotton there are also some disadvantages. Species of bamboo currently grown for use in building materials lack resistance to many plant-pathogenic fungi and bacteria. Susceptibility to disease causing microbes greatly reduces the life span of bamboo materials and the bamboo itself prior to harvesting. Bamboo becomes more brittle with colder temperatures so the use of bamboo for outdoor construction is limited to warmer climates and will require greater processing in order to be a potential alternative to wood. Bamboo is also not as fire resistant as wood and will absorb water more readily which can cause problems in wetter, warmer climates leading to shorter life-spans for bamboo-based materials.

Using bamboo to make clothing also requires a high level of energy input and chemical processing that makes bamboo-based fabrics less eco-friendly than varieties of sustainable cotton to the point that no bamboo derived materials can be labeled as such in the U.S. despite what many products and brands say on their labels. The other big issue for bamboo replacing wood and cotton in countries where bamboo is not native is the cost of transportation, both in terms of money and environmental impact. While farming, harvesting, and processing of bamboo in the tropical regions of the world where bamboo is native and traditionally grown may be more sustainable than wood, shipping the bamboo or bamboo- containing materials to other countries thousands of miles away can negate such positives with the burning of fossil fuels still used by international shipping companies. That’s in addition to the added cost to the consumer who has to pay for the shipping with increased cost of the item containing the bamboo.

Development of engineered building materials and fabrics incorporating bamboo has increased in the last decade to address some of these drawbacks including the combination of bamboo with wood and cotton (ironic, right?) but only time will tell if such an approach can maybe make bamboo, wood, and cotton more sustainable renewable resources as a whole for everyone everywhere.  

Dr. Sharon Mozley-Standridge is associate professor of biology at MGA. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia fungal systematics. Ever eat a mushroom? She worked on their very small relatives called chytrids. Mostly based on the Cochran Campus, she has been teaching at MGA since 2006 after a short postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa on Oahu. She chose her field because biology was also the one class in high school that stuck in her head the best and she has a special place in her heart for microbes.