Remember the smell on your hands during the frog/fetal pig/cat dissection in 10th grade bio?

Formaldehyde is a very old and very common fixative, and one quick glance through the wikipedia page reveals that it is used in far more products than most of us are probably aware of.  While it may not be the most horrible substance in the world,  it certainly doesn’t coincide with those happy “Eco-Friendly!” labels on practically every bamboo product out there.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you have noticed the bamboo trend in everything from flooring to clothing.  As someone who loves trees (and Asian inspired decor), I jumped right on this bandwagon. Unlike woods from trees,  harvesting bamboo does not involve cutting down 50 year old trees and throwing away the bark.  Technically, bamboo is a grass. Like grass, it can grow pretty much anywhere without the help of pesticides and fertilizers, and if you pull one blade out of the massive web of roots, another blade will pop up in its place almost overnight.  Some species of bamboo mature in 5 years, and can grow more than 2 feet in a 24 hour period.   Because of its size, rapid growth, and some other sciencey stuff I won’t get in to, bamboo also releases more oxygen than trees.

If you think about the impact of harvesting enough trees from a rainforest to floor a home, versus harvesting enough bamboo to floor a home, it is clear that bamboo has a significant environmentally friendly edge (and it looks awesome too).  The same goes for any product that can be made with bamboo instead of hardwood – like those cutting boards and utensil trays that are sold pretty much everywhere right now (and they are usually priced nicely, too).

But according to EcoVillageGreen and several other sources I found, “while the growth and cultivation of bamboo is very much organic, the manufacturing process that converts it from woody plant to end product is definitely not green. For flooring, for example, bamboo goes through a complex process ranging from steaming under pressure to kiln drying to hot pressing, all of which are very energy-intensive.  Additionally, some grades of bamboo flooring use formaldehyde adhesives of unknown quantity.”

This is a bit of a dilemma!  While using bamboo products removes that mental image I get of a monkey coming home from a hard day at work to find his tree has been cut down to make a floor in a yuppie mansion, I really don’t relish the idea of eating off of something that could be fixed with a chemical that can preserve dead tissue for decades and smells like the cat I had to cut apart in my high school bio lab.   In terms of eco-friendliness, it still seems that bamboo beats wood in a cage match, but be on the lookout for products that are labeled “formaldehyde free”, especially something in large quantities like flooring or something you’ll prepare food with (I’m giving my bamboo sauce spoon a suspicious glare right now).    My homework now will be to check out the bamboo kitchen accessory section at HomeGoods and see how many, if any, of the products are labeled “formaldehyde free”.   I also emailed the Etsy store I purchased the little sushi plates from to see if they know one way or the other.

The other increasingly common use of bamboo is in textiles – clothes, rugs, robes, towels, etc.  It feels amazingly soft, is usually priced reasonably, and like the bamboo “wood” products, is often labeled “eco friendly”.   It turns out though, this is not often the case. Bamboo fabric is far less environmentally friendly than the other form because of the steps required to turn a wood-like grass in to a silky fabric.   I found a description of the treatment process here, quoted in part:

  • Bamboo leaves and the soft, inner pith from the hard bamboo trunk are extracted and crushed;
  • The crushed bamboo cellulose is soaked in a solution of 15% to 20% sodium hydroxide at a temperature between 20 degrees C to 25 degrees C for one to three hours to form alkali cellulose;
  • The bamboo alkali cellulose is then pressed to remove any excess sodium hydroxide solution. The alkali cellulose is crashed by a grinder and left to dry for 24 hours;
  • Roughly a third as much carbon disulfide is added to the bamboo alkali cellulose to sulfurize the compound causing it to jell;
  • Any remaining carbon disulfide is removed by evaporation due to decompression and cellulose sodium xanthogenate is the result;
  • A diluted solution of sodium hydroxide is added to the cellulose sodium xanthogenate dissolving it to create a viscose solution consisting of about 5% sodium hydroxide and 7% to 15% bamboo fiber cellulose.
  • The viscose bamboo cellulose is forced through spinneret nozzles into a large container of a diluted sulfuric acid solution which hardens the viscose bamboo cellulose sodium xanthogenate and reconverts it to cellulose bamboo fiber threads which are spun into bamboo fiber yarns to be woven into reconstructed and regenerated bamboo fabric.
  • I’m no scientist,  but very little of that process is natural, and I have a hard time believing any of those chemicals are remotely eco friendly.   Another dilemma – because cotton goes through the same process to become rayon, but requires pesticides to grow, which bamboo does not.

    So what to make of the set of beautiful, soft, affordable, and 100% bamboo towels I ordered from Viva Terra last month?   There is no information on the website or on the tags regarding the manufacturing process – it just says “100% pure bamboo fiber”.  That might mean it was manufactured using the more expensive and less common non-chemical method – I certainly hope so, considering Viva Terra’s eco friendly promises, but it doesn’t seem likely I could find out for sure.  One company that has promised eco-friendly bamboo textiles is Gaiam – but no bamboo towels there.

    I guess the takeaway message here is that unless you floor your home with only natural tile and dry yourself off from the shower with leaves, you are going to buy products that would normally be made with wood or cotton.  As an alternative, many of the same things can be purchased in bamboo form with a decreased environmental impact, but not quite a negligible one.  Hopefully as bamboo maintains popularity and more consumers demand to know how their products are made, fewer and fewer chemicals will be involved in the process.

    Save some for the pandas though, because they are a lot cuter than humans, and they knew bamboo was awesome long before we did.

    This entry was posted in A Green Living Space. Bookmark the permalink.

    2 Responses to BamBOO?

    1. Sis-in-law says:

      great post, Mimi. I didn’t think about all the chemical processing that bamboo still entails. I’m eyeing my bamboo cutting board right now too!
      Have you ever looked into birch? My mom gave us bed sheets that are supposedly made from this wood. I wonder if they’re a better option than bamboo??

    2. Pingback: Bamboo - the newest, greatest and greenist product on the market? | NZ Ecochick

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