As we consider reducing our use of plastics, paper, cardboard, and glass are probably the first alternatives that come to mind and each raises questions we should consider. Production of new paper and cardboard starts by cutting down trees and this impacts the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the air. As trees are turned into word pulp, pollution, in the form of organic material such as resin acids, is released. Both paper and cardboard are biodegradable, and they can also be recycled, but only a limited number of times. Glass, which is not biodegradable, can be recycled an unlimited number of times. During glass production carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere but because glass is harder to create from scratch, it is actually more cost-effective to reuse and recycle glass.
Now we can add bamboo to the list of alternatives to plastics and other materials. Bamboo is ideal for kitchenware products like cutting boards, trays, and serving utensils, and it can also substitute for wood products from fences to furniture and hardwood floors. Other bamboo products include toilet paper, towels, bedsheets, straws, toothbrushes and even skateboards and computer parts. This increasingly popular material has many advantages but it also comes with drawbacks.
Bamboo is a member of the grass family and some species reach maturity in five years while others can be harvested as early as the second year of growth. Bamboo removes toxins (such as mercury and lead) from the soil, trapping them inside its stalks and it can remove carbon dioxide from the air four times more effectively than hardwood trees. Grasses love nitrogen and bamboo will thrive with nitrogen supplied by the natural decomposition of its own nutrient-rich leaves. However, bamboo farmers have found that newly planted bamboo benefits from added nitrogen and regular watering for the first three years after planting. Unlike other crops, bamboo requires little or no pesticides because it has a natural bio-agent that prevents the growth of bacteria on its fibers. These dense fibers, which give it extreme flexibility, also have a high silica content that makes bamboo pest-resistant.
Bamboos grow and flourish until they flower, then they produce seeds and die, which means that, unlike trees, they don’t need to be replanted after harvesting. Fully grown bamboo is harvested by cutting it at the base of the stalk. It will later regrow from the base, and because it is not uprooted during harvesting, the soil is not destabilized and therefore, is less susceptible to erosion. Bamboo can be harvested by hand, eliminating heavy machinery and its pollution but as bamboo agriculture scales up, machinery is used in harvesting.
Globally, the US is the top importer of bamboo products, and it is expected that bamboo as a crop in the US will have a huge impact on our agriculture with several hundred thousand acres or more planted. As the demand for bamboo products increases, there is an incentive for farmers to clear natural forestland and plant more bamboo even in areas not suitable for it, which requires the use of more fertilization.
Bamboo is not a “silver bullet” by any means, either as a sustainable crop or as a substitute for plastics or other materials, and when buying bamboo products the consumer should research how they are made because bamboo is only biodegradable if it is not treated with chemicals. Here are a few things to consider:
1) Bamboo flooring certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) comes from sustainably managed forests, but many flooring products use adhesive containing formaldehyde, which can emit a toxic gas after the flooring is installed. Bamboo can be manufactured without added formaldehyde and “better” manufacturers publish their test results for formaldehyde levels.
2) Molded bamboo kitchen products are an excellent alternative to plastic spatulas and bowls as long as they are made of bamboo sawdust, rice starch, and a natural, plant-based binder. Molded bamboo, however, is not microwave- or oven-safe.
The bamboo products mentioned at the beginning—toilet paper, towels and bedsheets—obviously are not alternatives to plastics, but I include them because they are popular and their manufacture raises issues we should all consider. There is toilet paper on the market that is recycled from sales receipts and newspapers but this recycled paper often has bisphenol-A (BPA) in it. Bamboo toilet paper has no chemicals except the bleach used to whiten it, and some expensive brands of bamboo paper are unbleached.
Bamboo fabric, on the other hand is a different story. One manufacturing method uses mechanical crushing, and natural enzymes to turn the plants into a mush. The fibers are combed out, and spun into yarn and fabric produced this way resembles linen. It is however, labor-intensive, and expensive, and the fabric produced is not soft enough to be used in many products. The other manufacturing method for bamboo fabric is chemical. The plants are cooked in a cocktail of chemical solvents and processed in the same manner as semi-natural rayon. This fabric may not retain the bamboo’s antibacterial properties or UV resistance, and it is not biodegradable.
There is a lot more information out there on the problem of plastics, the pros and cons of alternatives, and recycling, and looking at it all can be overwhelming. Instead I suggest we look to our small corner of the world, take small steps and follow our tradition that teaches us to preserve natural resources and generate new ones for future generations. The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni, walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the man replied. Choni then asked, “Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair
An Addendum: Silicone
Silicone has become a popular alternative to plastics and is used in a wide range of products including kitchen ware and utensils. Silicone is not a natural material. Its’ base, silicon (with no e), comes from quartz, and the hydrocarbons used to make silicone comes from petroleum or natural gas, requiring production methods with well-established environmental problems. Silicone is a flexible, rubberlike plastic, and it has useful properties, such as a long life, if maintained properly, low toxicity, meaning it has a lower chance of leaching any chemicals and it has high heat resistance. While it is more environmentally friendly than plastic, silicone is not biodegradable and there are some claims it can be recycled, but facilities for this are rare.
—Lesley Frost, Advocacy Chair