Bow to the wonders of bamboo
Bow to the wonders of bamboo
Bamboo has a reputation as one of the most eco-friendly materials, a real super grass. It's used in products from flooring to t shirts and washable nappies - but is it always good stuff? Kay Hill investigates
Until a decade or so ago, bamboo was little used outside China and the Far East – appearing in British homes only in the guise of the occasional piece of dodgy looking conservatory furniture. Now, it seems, it is everywhere. You can put it on your floor, make your kitchen units and worktops from it, use it to upholster your sofas and paper your walls, sit on it, sleep on it and wear it. But how green is it really?
Bamboo as a crop
According to Doug Bancorn of US bamboo importers Green Earth, the crop itself is extremely environmentally-friendly: 'Bamboo is self-regenerating. That means that every year the bamboos can be cut a few feet above ground, and then they grow back; readying themselves for next year’s harvest.
'No irrigation system, no pesticides, no herbicides and no replanting. Additionally, because of their manageable size and weight, bamboos do not require heavy industrial equipment to harvest and transport.' He also notes that bamboo removes 62 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere per acre compared with 16 tonnes per acre for trees, and provides 35 per cent more oxygen than trees.
Around 80 per cent of bamboo is exported from China, but small-scale operations in countries such as Vietnam are boosting the local economy.
Recent research shows that on average, 60 per cent of the price of the bamboo went directly to the farmers who grew it. There are obviously energy costs associated with transporting it from China, although it’s worth noting that much European wood is also sent to the Far East for processing. Although bamboo is essentially a farm crop and seldom harvested from the wild, the FSC has recently extended its respected wood labelling scheme to include bamboo, allowing every piece to be traceable back to its origin and guaranteeing sustainability.
Bamboo is not a wood, but a fast growing grass that grows in tall, hollow tubes (in the Far East you often see scaffolding made from it), so it cannot be simply cut into planks and used for flooring. Instead it has to be turned into some kind of engineered board, through the addition of various glues and resins. The manufacturing process requires energy use to dry the bamboo and process it into boards. Some engineered boards are made entirely from bamboo in different layers, others use wood chip underneath.
Chris Elliott is MD at The Bamboo Flooring Company, which sells a wide range of 100 per cent bamboo floorings. Some feature wide layers of bamboo to give a natural grain, while its Strand Woven product is made from every bit of the bamboo stem, shredded, woven and heat-pressed into an engineered product that is twice as hard as oak.
'Yes, it does have some adhesives in it,' says Elliott, 'but they conform to EU standards so the boards are non-toxic and non-hazardous. The big difference is that if you are going to use oak it has been growing for 50 or 60 years, whereas bamboo is farmed like a crop and only takes around five years to grow.'
Smith & Fong manufactures a wide range of flooring options, (sold under the Plyboo name in the US).
Designs include Squared which has a mosaic-like effect, Strand which uses the whole plant to create a hard, engineered board, and Edge Grain which has an attractive narrow stripe. The company has tackled eco questions over the processing of flooring by offering a SoyBond option which uses only natural plant materials in the bonding process rather than chemicals such as urea formaldehyde.
For general construction around the home, such as kitchen base units, bamboo plywood has similar properties to general plywood, in that it is light, strong and inexpensive. The fast-growing nature of bamboo means that it offers possible environmental advantages over normal wood, but care needs to be taken with the glues used in manufacture, which in some instances are formaldehyde-based, causing environmental risks during manufacture and health concerns over off-gassing in use. Smith & Fong Bamboo offers a formaldehyde-free SoyBond option.
Worktops and bamboo chopping boards
The combination of its beautiful grain and hard-wearing nature means that bamboo is an increasingly popular choice for kitchen worksurfaces and free-standing chopping boards. Second Nature kitchens, for example, offers bamboo worksurfaces in a range of thicknesses for either a slimline or chunky look, while bamboo worktops in a variety of colours can be bought from No Name Kitchens.
Bamboo furniture and lighting
Although it doesn’t offer large planks, bamboo can be joined together to produce interesting furniture pieces as well as stylish lighting. Wambamboo is one of the leading proponents of bamboo style, offering a range of furniture and striking lighting. Erik Jansen has used steam bent strips of bamboo to create an interesting contemporary stool called Spring, available at www.wildspirit.be, US furniture designer Bill More has some lovely bamboo and steel coffee tables which can be seen at www.forgedelements.com, while closer to home, check out Coco Male's contemporary bedroom furniture.
'Growing bamboo is a wonderfully beneficial plant for the planet and most is naturally organic,' says Michael Lackman of organic fabric company Lotus Organics. 'But the manufacturing processes where bamboo the plant is transformed into bamboo the fabric are where the sustainability and eco-friendly lustre of bamboo is tarnished because of the heavy chemicals, some of which are toxic, that are often required.'
To make bamboo fabric, the woody stems have to be broken down. The environmentally-friendly way to do this is similar to the process of making linen from flax or hemp, via a mechanical method of crushing the plants, using natural enzymes to turn them into mush then mechanically combing the fibres out and spinning them into yarn. Unfortunately this method tends to be used only in small-scale operations, whereas around 90 per cent of bamboo textiles are made using a chemical method. In the most common method, called hydrolysis alkalization and multi-phase bleaching, strong chemical solvents such as caustic soda break the stems down into cellulose, a second chemical, carbon disulphide, is added to the mix to cause it to gel, more caustic soda makes it into a solution which is spun into a bath of sulphuric acid, which causes the fibres to harden enough to be spun. Hardly a gentle, organic process! The chemicals used can cause health risks to workers and to the environment if they escape, although tests show that none of the toxic elements are present in the finished fabrics.
In response to concerns about these chemicals, some newer plants use weaker and less toxic chemicals to do the same job, including amine oxides and alcohol. This manufacturing process, called Lyocell, which is commonly used to make Tencel fabric, is a closed loop so 99.5 per cent of the chemicals are recaptured and recycled. However, it is often difficult for the customer to obtain reliable information about which processes have been used. Regardless of the method of production, the finished textiles are usually gloriously soft, with a natural glossy sheen. Bamboo has natural anti-bacterial properties, which means it is a popular choice for towels, bedlinen, nappies and underwear, and it is used in the manufacture of luxurious Vi-Spring mattresses.
Vi-Spring MD Mike Meehan notes: 'Apart from being supremely soft and comfortable, natural fibres such as bamboo are also extremely clean and healthy to sleep on. Naturally hypoallergenic, bamboo is ideal for use in mattress upholstery as it draws moisture away from the body, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter. With antibacterial properties, mattresses made using bamboo remain fresh, prolonging the life of the mattress.'
Bamboo is also gaining popularity for curtains, rugs and wallpaper. Large fabric houses including Stark Fabric and Zoffany offer bamboo products suitable for upholstery, while rugs such as Stark Carpet’s Lucky Stripe are soft and hard-wearing underfoot. It is also possible to find bamboo fabrics which haven’t been mass produced. Anglo-Nepalese company Wildweaves, for example, offers a hand-loomed 100 per cent bamboo weave which is probably as simple and natural a product as you could hope to find.
Green for Go: Bamboo flooring, furniture and solid surfaces made using natural, non-toxic glues and resins, bamboo fabric made by mechanical or Lyocell processes.
Amber for Caution: Bamboo textiles made using the hydrolysis alkalization and multi-phase bleaching system. The plant is sustainable and eco-friendly, but there are risks to the environment during manufacture. However, it is still a better choice than, for example, a non-organic cotton fabric that has greater risks to the environment and to workers.