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Bamboo

Bamboo

Call to action:

Foster the use of bamboo in agroforestry, food production, building construction, land restoration, rural economic development, wildlife habitat protection, and atmospheric carbon sequestration.

Bamboo is a subfamily of grasses that can act like trees and be used like trees. Unlike many trees, however, some species of bamboo can grow exponentially on degraded land, be managed without pesticides or fertilizer, and sequester significant amounts of carbon over short periods of time. In addition to holding deep cultural significance among many communities,  bamboo has the potential to replace resource-intensive materials in products ranging from toilet paper to structural support in buildings. Bamboo’s strong root systems reduce soil erosion, and the plant can be used as a clean source of charcoal for cooking stoves and home heating. While bamboo can be invasive, like many grass plants, it is native to five continents and has the potential to be an essential multipurpose natural climate solution if grown and managed properly.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the many benefits of using bamboo. Bamboo is a subfamily of grasses that act like trees in that they produce woody stems and create dense forests. While bamboo is known as a food source for pandas in China, it is actually native to every continent except Europe and Antarctica. Here are some key benefits of bamboo cultivation and use:

  • Bamboo sequesters a significant amount of carbon. On average, one hectare of bamboo stands absorbs around seventeen tons of carbon per year, and some well-managed bamboo stands have been found to sequester two to four times more carbon than other forests of similar acreage. Bamboo’s strong capacity for sequestering carbon is due to a number of the plant’s qualities, including its rapid growth—for example, the Chinese moso bamboo can grow about a meter in just one day. Bamboo also has extensive root systems that sequester carbon below ground; and bamboo holds on to carbon long after it is cut due to silica structures called phytoliths in bamboo cells, which continue to seal in carbon even after the plant itself has decomposed.
  • Bamboo is important for restoring degraded ecosystems. Bamboo offers dense, protective canopies for wildlife, stabilizes soil from erosion, and provides litter fall and fine roots that add a considerable amount of carbon and nutrients to the soil. Bamboo can be grown in poor soils and in harsh areas receiving full sun and high winds, while its shallow and robust root system, often comprised of rhizomes, act as a net that binds soil and prevents water runoff. In addition, the application of bamboo biochar in mine-polluted soil has the potential to reduce the toxicity of heavy metals in the soil and enhance the growth of vegetation.
  • Bamboo can serve as a replacement for more resource-intensive materials in a variety of everyday products. Bamboo can replace virgin wood from old-growth forests, which is used in toilet paper, and it can serve as an alternative to a variety of plastics used in toothbrushes, straws, cups, and other household items. However, there are certain problems associated with bamboo products. For example, the rapid increase in demand for bamboo could lead farmers to clearcut natural forests in order to plant bamboo monocultures, though practices such as bamboo agroforestry may be used to prevent this issue. The production of processed bamboo can also involve harmful chemicals, though conscientious consumers can learn to identify bamboo products made with these substances
  • Bamboo can be used in buildings. Bamboo’s durable qualities make it a competitive building material, not just as a replacement for hardwood flooring, but as a substitute for steel and for reinforcement in concrete construction. Bamboo has a tensile strength comparable to steel, and a natural impermeable protective layer on its outer side that may protect it from rot and water damage, though this layer may wear down over time.
  • Bamboo can serve as a food source to help foster plant-based diets. Bamboo has long been an important food source in traditional dishes in Southeast Asian and East Asian countries, including in Indian dishes such as ushoi, soibum, rep, mesu, eup, ekhung, and hirring. Bamboo also has medicinal qualities that are being studied for use in treating illnesses such as hypertension, arteriosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
  • Bamboo can be used as a clean cooking and heating source. Bamboo can be converted to bamboo charcoal, which may be more renewable than traditional wood charcoal due to bamboo’s fast growth and abundance around the world. Bamboo charcoal also burns clean and is smokeless. By substituting forest wood charcoal with bamboo charcoal, 10 million premature deaths by 2030 due to smoke inhalation could be prevented.
  • Bamboo may serve as an important biofuel. Using a process known as ball milling to extract sugars from the plant for later enzyme treatment and fermentation, bamboo can be converted to ethanol and thus be used as a biofuel. It has been reported that a single bamboo pole is capable of providing power for a rural household for an entire month. While bamboo biofuels may provide benefits for rural households that currently rely on firewood, they must be carefully used to prevent the spread of monoculture plantations.

Buy products that contain bamboo instead of other materials. Bamboo can serve as a viable alternative to resource-intensive materials such as wood, cotton, and plastic. Compared to bamboo, wood and cotton may use more water, land, and fertilizer to grow. While some plastics may be recycled, many are nonbiodegradable and are made from petroleum.

  • Bamboo alternatives to many products are widely available, including for toilet paper, cookware, water bottles, and straws. Some notable companies with bamboo products include Cheeky Panda (toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues), Booomers (bicycles), and Bhavana (water bottles).
  • Bamboo can also be used as a fabric for bedsheets and clothing. However, do not purchase products made from bamboo rayon, which is produced through a highly intense chemical process that is toxic to humans and to the environment.

Learn about how bamboo is managed properly in order to prevent its invasive spread, and remove invasive bamboo in your community if needed. Because of its fast-growing nature and ability to thrive in harsh environments, bamboo can become invasive if not managed properly, meaning that it prevents native plants from growing and thwarts biodiversity. In fact, golden bamboo and other large bamboo species can easily spread fifteen feet a year. Some options to prevent the invasive spread of bamboo in your own community include:

  • Maintaining buffers and physical barriers around bamboo groves.
  • Learning how to identify bamboo species that are considered native to your bioregion using a field guide, and remove otherwise invasive bamboo stands when possible.
  • Advocating for the restricted use of invasive bamboo in local gardens.

Groups

Forest Managers, Farmers, and Rural Landowners

Learn how to plant bamboo and understand the benefits of planting and harvesting of bamboo. Explore how and whether bamboo can be planted on the land you own or manage to protect wildlife protection and to stabilize soil. Bamboo is one of the most valuable nontimber forest products in the world, and it can serve as an important source of income for rural landowners.

  • Potential silvicultural practices for bamboo include soil loosening, selective trimming, and stump removal in order to grow and regenerate bamboo stands. In addition, no irrigation, fertilizer, or pesticides are needed to grow bamboo, and this plant can be especially hardy in cold climates.
  • The easy management of bamboo stands in contrast to many other crops that may be susceptible to droughts in a warming climate, release harmful chemicals to the soil and groundwater due to pesticide application, and contribute to the eutrophication of waterways via fertilizer runoff.
  • Bamboo can also be used to combat desertification. For example, a restoration project in Allahabad, North India, has transformed a barren landscape into a lush bamboo forest. This effort has added six to eight inches of humus to the soil each year and helped raise the local water table by over fifteen meters in under twenty years.
  • Bamboo can be used in afforestation projects given the plant’s propensity to thrive on degraded land. One particular bamboo afforestation project in Nicaragua involved the planting of more than one million plants of a native species of giant clumping bamboo.
  • Bamboo agroforestry promotes efficient land use, soil fertility on farms, and financial gain for farmers. One bamboo agroforestry project, Bamboo for Integrated Development Ghana, is working to improve the livelihood of local farmers, ensure an available food supply, and mitigate climate change.

Scientists

Expand research into the benefits of sustainable bamboo use. While the carbon sequestration rate of bamboo is generally understood to be high, few scientists have actually measured bamboo’s carbon storage ability. Other areas ripe for exploration include:

  • Finding new, innovative ways bamboo can be used as an alternative to materials such as wood and single-use plastics.
  • Studying the potential medicinal benefits of bamboo shoots.
  • Finding and mapping areas of the world that are suitable for bamboo cultivation. An example is this study that developed spatial information for bamboo forests in the Philippines.

Companies

Invest in and collaborate with other companies and organizations that use bamboo in innovative ways. As opposed to trees that take several years to complete a harvest rotation cycle, bamboo grows so quickly that it can be harvested annually, meaning a quicker return on investment. Some companies and organizations that may be worth working with include:

  • Plantations International, a farm management conglomerate that provides sustainable agricultural and agroforestry management services to clients, including services related to bamboo investment.
  • Guadua Bamboo, an expert in cultivating and exporting giant tropical timber bamboos in Latin America. The company hosts Adopt a Bamboo, which is a donations-based bamboo reforestation project.
  • MOSO, an FSC-certified provider of bamboo products in commercial and home applications, including bamboo decking, siding, and flooring.

Use bamboo in building projects. Bamboo’s durable qualities make it a viable alternative for a host of building materials, and a number of companies are providing services that make the use of bamboo in building projects more accessible than ever before.

Governance

Develop best management practices and environmental standards for the care of bamboo forests. Bamboo’s potential is still untapped in many countries due to a lack of understanding on how to establish and manage bamboo properly. Key governance areas needed in order to promote the cultivation of bamboo forests include:

Provide economic incentives for the use of bamboo as an alternative to other resources, such as wood and single-use plastics. While China is the leading producer of bamboo products and the bamboo trade there is robust, the bamboo sector still has room to grow in many other countries. Potential obstacles to growth include the fact that timber supplies are still plentiful worldwide and lumber is cheap, making bamboo a more expensive substitute. A number of economic incentives may be useful in promoting bamboo:

  • India’s National Bamboo Mission was developed to support the entire value chain of the bamboo sector by providing subsidies, bamboo retail outlets, and skill development in bamboo cultivation.
  • Chinese companies can buy carbon offsets from bamboo plantations through a program approved by the state forestry administration.
  • Bamboo has a potential role within the REDD+ mechanism, which can provide financial incentives for forest conservation.

Promote the use of bamboo, as opposed to bamboo rayon, in fabric through regulation. Clothing made from bamboo may be marketed as sustainable, when in fact it is made with toxic bamboo rayon. This deception can be thwarted through laws and regulations:

  • The Textile Fiber Products Identification Act and associated Federal Trade Commission regulations in the United States mandates that textiles may be called bamboo only if they are made directly from actual bamboo fiber; textiles made from rayon created by using bamboo as a plant source must be advertised as containing rayon.

Learn

Watch

Read

Bamboo for Land Restoration by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization

Bamboo: The Plant and Its Uses by Walter Liese and Michael Köhl

Bamboo: Malawi’s Unexpected Tool for Climate Change Resilience by Caroline Gagné and Moushumi Chaudhury, World Resources Institute

Building Up Bamboo by Jennifer Chu, MIT News

Fighting Climate Change with Bamboo by Charlotte King, China Dialogue

When a Grass Towers over the Trees by Manipadma Jena, Inter Press Service

Listen

Bamboo Is Better (BBC Radio: 39 Ways to Save the Planet Podcast)

The Brilliance of Bamboo! (The Plant Based Podcast)

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