Bamboo – a nature’s magical resource

Bamboo Pavilion, Taiwan

How this Asian grass is fuelling the imagination of designers and engineers and thus creating ecological solutions and businesses that preserve rainforests

The bamboo’s distinctive properties make it suitable as a commercial material

Bamboo is the fastest growing giant grass on Earth with high growth durability and versatile applications across different sectors. Bamboo gives its name to 1,250 species and subspecies in total and its first documented uses can be traced to Chinese pottery with references to Black Bamboo as far back as  4,000 BC.  In India, building with bamboo has been practiced for centuries by forest-based artisans who have used it for housing. The bamboo stem is widely regarded as an excellent substitute for wood in the form of laminated bamboo boards, fencing and household products from cooking tools, through to music instruments to toothbrushes. Commercial bamboo farming is already creating thousands of jobs across rural Africa, Latin America and Asia since it is labour intensive. Bamboo plants are typically planted, maintained and harvested by hand.

Today, the world bamboo market, led by China and an increasing demand for sustainable products in Europe and the United States, is growing exponentially with the global bamboo economy now valued at $60 billion and employing nearly 10 million people just in China. Therefore, its potential as an income generator for rural communities is vast.  (figures according to the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan, INBAR).

Bamboo distribution according to geographical location

Sustainable Bamboo Benefits

Sustainable cash crop for farmers helping to regenerate rural communities

Reforestation solution

Biofuel replacing firewood or charcoal made from timber for cooking

Climate change mitigation- each plant takes almost double the CO2 of a tree

100% biodegradable and compostable

Environmental Remediation – it releases 35% more Oxygen than tropical trees

Textile industry

Bioenergy industry

Construction and domestic uses

Food and beverage industry

Pharmaceutical industry

Conservation of primary forests

In Ghana, bamboo micro-processing plants are established with the aim of replenishing the depleted forests. Sumatra, and Indonesia as a whole, faces important land conservation issues as many areas are prone to land loss due to frequent flooding and landslides. Bamboo offers an ecological and cost-effective solution to this problem.  A large-scale deforestation and respiratory diseases can also be greatly reduced by replacing firewood and charcoal made from timber for cooking that lead to land degradation and indoor pollution. Examples of commercial products that can replace wood in paper and pulp industry include newsprint, toilet paper and cardboard, which would help to conserve the area’s finite resources, such as its forests. Bamboo can be sustainably harvested for well over 40 years. The plant can also help restore landscapes because once it starts growing it remains rooted in the soil, producing new shoots each year. This helps secure the soil, create an effective watershed and maintain slope stability. This versatile plant’s ability to treat water has also found its application in in both low and high-tech biological filtration systems whereby planted bamboo removes macro particles and helps restore ecological balance to the soil and water ecosystems.  Bamboo forest can be established to effectively treat grey water so that it does not enter the soil and waterways contributing to eutrophication – the excess of nutrients in water.  As this type of environmental pollution causes algal blooms, odour nuisance and, in serious cases, the death of fish, it is bad for the health of people, their environment and tourism. This is especially important in countries where bamboo grows naturally and where even the most rudimentary water treatment doesn’t exist and the wastewater containing detergents from populated areas ends up in rivers, on beaches and in the sea. By combining the natural resource with the waste problem we have an affordable, sustainable solution that can help communities to deal with this soil-water ecosystem pollution independently of the government.  In France, bamboo has been treating the food industry grey water for re-use, as a part of the EU-funded project focused on developing innovative water treatment solutions that employ the use of bamboo as a vegetation filter  that can be set up by food factories.  One of several businesses that applied this new system is a French soft drinks factory near Valence that uses a bamboo filtration system built by a French company Phytorem.

Reunion Island pig slurry treatments with bamboo

The highly productive and resistant bamboo uses its extensive root system to strip the water, soil and air of pollutants and biodegrade these through the process called phytoremediation. As if this wasn’t amazing enough, a by-product of this wastewater treatment i.e. bamboo biomass can be harnessed to heat factory’s offices or other nearby buildings. This type of bio-filtration system can be applied to treat land contaminated by livestock farming that generates large amounts of slurry. For example, bamboo groves were created on Reunion Island, a French overseas territory in the western Indian Ocean where pollution from pig farming causes serious environmental pollution.

Due to differences in structure and the chemical composition of bamboo when compared with wood, bamboo has to be worked in different ways. It cannot be cut in to boards or blocks of large size, but it is sliced into thin strips that cannot be used directly.   

This process has been, and still is, done traditionally with hand tools by local carpenters, however for this to be commercially viable a process requires a multitasking machinery. A machine that performs most of the bamboo preparation tasks on a single platform was designed by an Indian amateur bamboo worker in 2006. However, there are other machines needed for more precision-based tasks such as slicing, making slivers and square bamboo sticks, etc, and a number of jobs that require working with hand tools. The machine is controlled with a four-way joystick linked to a robust electro-mechanical control logic kernel. It weighs 75 kg and is electrically operated using a one HP motor running on 230 volts AC supply. There are various bamboo processing machines presently on the market.

Additional income streams derived from bamboo waste

Sustainably cultivated, harvested and processed bamboo lumber is an ideal material for constructing ecotourism lodges, infrastructure within nature reserves and public amenities and has widely been used in many countries that champion ecotourism and ecological construction. The processing of bamboo produces a large amount of residual ‘waste’, which can be turned into products including: bamboo charcoal, handicrafts and other high-value products.

Construction and technological applications

Bamboo’s higher resistance to pressure than steel makes it an ideal reinforcing material that has long been used as a scaffolding to build skyscrapers in Hong Kong and more recently in making eco bicycles, surfboards and other sport equipment. 

Commercially bamboo is used for furniture and a variety of building and roofing materials, from fencing poles to veneer, floor tiles, panels for walls and ceilings, electricity wire and water pipes, door and window frames and window blinders and in production of biofuels.

Domestic applications

On a household level, the plant is made into mats, baskets, canoes, fishing kits, fences, toothpicks, school desks, pencils and rulers, to name just a few products.

Bamboo clothing

Bamboo fibre is a hardwearing, luxury natural product with antibacterial properties, which makes it a good choice as an odour-preventing textile in functional clothes such as sports ware and linen.(see ref.) Another independent study showed that bamboo fabrics (100%) give better results compared to 100% cotton and 100% viscose fabric in terms of antibacterial property.(ref. Journal of the Textile Institute). Bamboo contains a bactericide called bamboo Kun so it will combat pests and fungi during growing so there is no need for pesticides.

The textile industry converts bamboo into fabrics, T-shirts, with top designers using natural woven bamboo fibre to produce luxurious bamboo clothing ranges for women and men. Thermal regulating of the bamboo fabric helps keep the body cooler when the weather is hot and warmer when the weather is cool, by keeping moisture away from the body and thus helping the wearer stay dry and three degrees cooler.  Bed sheets are said to be softer than Egyptian cotton.

Bamboo in farming

Bamboo’s multiple products in farming include greenhouses, water pipes, animal pens and animal fodder, beehives, fencing, farming tools, and others.

Bamboo as alternative to plastics

Many resorts cannot attract tourists and stay competitive by offering good quality facilities alone while ignoring the environmental consequences of buying in, utilising and selling products packaged in hazardous plastics.  The only viable solution is for them to embrace sustainability, set their sustainable goals and deliver on their ecological credentials to win over the increasingly better informed tourists.  By doing so all tourism providers and particularly hospitality and catering teams can help instil ecological awareness within their own communities and drive the ecological standards within the sector as a whole. Eco-tourists want to see forest saved and animals helped, therefore it is essential all businesses align to these high conservation standards. People currently using hardwoods from the forest can find new ways to earn a more sustainable income by making more ecological products from the eco crop such as bamboo.  They can also reduce and even completely phase out plastics from their households and businesses by using bamboo and other plant-based alternatives.

Bamboo as food and medicine

Bamboo young shoots, tea, beer, wine and vinegar are ubiquitous in Asian cuisines. In addition, all parts of bamboo plant are recognized as an anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal and made into pharmaceuticals in many economies.

Bamboo vinegar, a by-product of charcoal production, has been produced in Japan and used to treat skin diseases.  It has recently been popularized as a main ingredient (along with the mineral tourmaline) in “sap sheets” applied to the feet to “draw out toxins.” (see ref.) Bamboo ashes provide salt substitute in North Vietnam.

Bibliography

  1. http://www.bikebamboo.com/bamboo_properties.php
  2. The study published in the Journal of Family Ecology and Consumer Sciences on antibacterial properties of bamboo viscose.
  3. Bamboo as Medicine by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon   (http://www.itmonline.org/arts/bamboo.htm)
  4. Piouceau, J.; Panfili, F.; et alia. Bamboo Plantations for Phytoremediation of Pig Slurry: Plant Response and Nutrient Uptake. Plants 2020, 9, 522.
  5. https://cordis.europa.eu/article/id/36167-innovative-system-uses-bamboo-to-treat-wastewater

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