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Is Bamboo Sustainable?

Is Bamboo Sustainable?

The cyber world is alive with chatter about the advantages of bamboo, and at this time of growing environmental consciousness, it’s easy to see why.

 At first glance, bamboo products and uses seem limitless. As a building material, it makes attractive and durable hardwood floors and furniture. It can fill many decorative needs inside the home--from picture frames to floor mats to room dividers. For the kitchen it can be made into sturdy cooking utensils and cutting boards. In the closet, fabrics made from bamboo are naturally antibacterial and softer than cotton. Agriculturally, it can provide channel linings for irrigation systems, and furthermore, bamboo shoots are edible, and not just by pandas. And on the aesthetic side, delicate music can be played on a bamboo flute, and listened to through a passive bamboo amplifier. When bamboo is discarded, it's biodegradable.

 And there are advantages on the growing side as well. First, since bamboo is actually a grass, it grows rapidly and re-grows quickly after cutting (just think of your lawn). Bamboo can replenish itself in as little as five years after harvesting and requires few pesticides. While it grows, it absorbs more carbon out of the air, and releases more oxygen back into the atmosphere than hardwood trees. It can sometimes grow in degraded landscapes, and is drought tolerant. As the world population increases, we could conceivably reduce the pressure on native forests by employing more bamboo.

 The possibilities are exciting, but there are serious issues to resolve if bamboo is to meet its promise. First, if it is harvested prematurely and not processed carefully, it can lose many of its valued properties.  And because of its rapid growth, it can become a monoculture, disrupting other habitats. The processing of bamboo into fabrics can sometimes involve caustic chemicals. Transportation to distant markets can be costly and energy intensive.

 What’s needed is the development and implementation of a set of international standards for the sustainable harvesting and processing of bamboo. These standards will need to be coordinated across the globe, throughout China and Southeast Asia, and including the emerging bamboo plantations in Africa and South America. This will require a steady, determined effort, but if it can be accomplished, the result could be a win-win for both suppliers and consumers.

 And bamboo, which in many parts of the world has sometimes been disregarded as a weed, could instead be a significant component in the mix of materials required for an environmentally sustainable future.

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