Bamboo has been a consistent and increasingly prevalent fibre source for various products — including paper, flooring and textiles. Bamboo is often promoted as a remarkable renewable material due to the fact that it grows incredibly fast. Bamboo has a strong root network, and in just four years can grow sufficient volumes to be economically viable for harvest for its woody/cellulose rich fibre.
But not all bamboo is the same. Similar to any productive crop, bamboo can be grown sustainably or unsustainably. It is important to distinguish between bamboo grown and harvested in a manner that meets today’s environmental expectations and bamboo that exacerbates the problems.
Historically, clearing of the giant pandas’ natural bamboo forest habitat and food source led to the now iconic species becoming endangered. Lessons were learned regarding panda habitat in China, yet in other regions, natural forests continue to be cleared in order to grow bamboo plantations. Canopy’s position is that conversion of natural forests to plantations negates any potential environmental benefit of bamboo production. However, we also recognize that there are bamboo plantations planted on long-ago cleared or degraded farm lands which are more ecologically appropriate.
The impacts associated with processing bamboo to be used in papers or textiles also needs to be considered. Whether derived from forest fibre or bamboo, pulping fibres to make viscose, paper or packaging can be a chemically-intensive process. Ensuring cutting-edge technology that provides a more efficient and cleaner alternative to existing pulping methods is critical when considering the use of bamboo fibre.
Can bamboo be considered a Next Generation Solution[i]?
Canopy is a strong proponent for alleviating pressure on the world’s forests and climate via shifting towards circular models of production for paper and textiles, and the use of lower impact alternatives to wood fibre. Catalyzing rapid and broad adoption of these more sustainable systems and solutions is a priority for Canopy[ii],
Brands and producers often ask whether bamboo can be considered one of these innovative and more responsible Next Generation materials. Primary sources of information considered by Canopy to evaluate such options include independent third-party Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards.
An LCA commissioned by Kimberly Clark evaluated bamboo as one of several alternatives to wood pulp used for the production of tissue paper in North America. This study verified that bamboo grown on degraded agricultural and forest lands that are managed under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) criteria can have a significantly lower ecological impact than fibre from the Boreal forests. However, the study also noted there are impacts related to bamboo with pesticide use and invasiveness that should be noted.[iii] Another LCA commissioned by Stella McCartney compared ten sources of man-made cellulose fibre (MMCF), and highlighted that the main impact categories for bamboo viscose are net freshwater consumption and human health impacts due to exposure to hazardous chemicals. This LCA considered production of MMCF derived from five completely different material feedstocks (wood, bamboo pulp, cotton linter, flax by-products, recycled clothing), with supply chains stretching across four continents. While there was no source of MMCF which was unambiguously environmentally preferable across all impact categories, bamboo performed as a ‘’middle class’’ fibre, after Flax Production and Recycled Pulp and ahead of original forest fibre from Canada and Indonesia across most impact categories.[iv]
When it comes to the harvesting of bamboo, the FSC has set rigorous standards whether from natural forests, including from smallholders[i], from Low Intensity Managed Forests, and from plantations.
Canopy recommends a cautious approach to ensure the following considerations have been taken into account:
- The bamboo has not been grown in conditions that require or required conversion of natural forest ecosystems to bamboo plantations. Bamboo plantations can have a positive effect when established on degraded lands to help restore the landscapes;
- Bamboo should not be harvested from Ancient and Endangered Forests, including Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL);
- Bamboo, whether from plantations or natural forest areas, should be FSC-certified, the forest certification scheme that currently has the strongest requirements, including for bamboo[ii];
- Bamboo must be legally sourced, as should any source of fibre;
- Land on which bamboo is cultivated must have the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous and traditional communities for such cultivation;
- Bamboo should be processed in best-in-class pulping facilities that have a closed-loop chemical system to address and eliminate toxic emissions and effluent issues; and
- Bamboo should not be cultivated on land where its cultivation displaces food crops or places pressure on regional water supplies[iii].
So, is bamboo a Next Generation Solution? Canopy does not categorize bamboo unambiguously as a Next Generation fibre because it is a purpose grown virgin fibre crop, not a waste product, and therefore not part of circular modes of production. Agricultural residue fibres, microbial cellulosics, and recycled materials all have a lower environmental impact. However, when grown to recuperate degraded land, and meeting the seven criteria listed above, bamboo can be an environmentally reputable virgin fibre compared to wood. In these positive contexts, bamboo is a legitimate on-purpose crop – which can qualify as a Next Generation Solution alternative fibre.
[vi] Woody and tall bamboo species are eligible for FSC certification in the context of natural forest and plantations. https://fsc.org/en/document-centre/documents/resource/185