Yes, I do absolutely love bamboo, but there is nothing more beautiful than the interaction of entire ecosystems, ranging from a mix of plant and animal species.
I think that trees are incredible beautiful and they are incredible versatile, but name me one tree that you can use as quickly and easily as bamboo.
First of all, let me just simply begin with…wow… . Tropical bamboo is just incredible beautiful. It is huge, thick, strong with incredible leaf fall. Its leafs quickly cover forest ground, which decompose rapidly and become nutrient to other fauna and flora species (the little decomposers, hardly visible to the human eye).
Now comes my first question from the forest. Why are we transforming raw materials (lets say steel), by using tonnes of energy and resources to create a round artificial structure that fullfills the same purpose as a bamboo pole (see bank left picture). Why are we cutting and slicing trees that take likely many more years to regrow instead of using bamboo that also fullfills the same purpose (see right image). Of course, either way bamboo for longevility purposes needs treatment, but that is another story.
Bascially on these pictures here above, all you have to do is to walk in the forest with a a saw or machete, cut a bamboo pole, cut it a little more short, bind it together and here we go; a swing, buildings, stairs,… .
Here you can see a little bit better how the poles are sticked together. Okay, for the bridge you have to slice the bamboo culms into smaller stripes and parts. But even then, can you recognize how bendable bamboo is? It can even be wrapped around a finger for multiple times without breaking.
Bamboo and bendability… I think it can be difficult to imagine what it actually means, when we are used to pictures that illustrate the bamboo pole by itself. Isn’t it beautiful though? I have to commit that until this weekend I was mostly writing and reading about its bendability potential.. So I decided to sit in a river and understand it myself. I hope it will help you too 🙂
And then.. it is also fiberous. Fiberous.. Fiber.. What is actually fiber ? It is also difficult to imagine because we usually buy finished products such as textile.
Here you can see the fibers. These are those very thin “lines” that can be processed and used for textile. The process is a little bit complicated and I do not want to touch upon it. If you are interested, please read here.
Besides that, I think bamboo is simply incredible. You can use it to build houses, particular earth quake resistant once, I am yet to promote them more in regions like those in the Ring of Fire – prone to earth quakes. You can simply work with bamboos hollow structure (see picture in the rice field) but also use it to support building structures (picture in the middle).
Most of all, I think it is also incredible fun to play around with it, look at it, use it and understand how we can promote it more for its versatile purposes. Bamboo is not just a grass, to me it is a power plant; you take it from nature, cut it, treat it and use it. In an age in which time is scare! bamboo is a trully sustainable solution.
I am almost 30 years old and when I look into the mirrow, I recognize those small and yet growing wrinkles on my face. They were always there, just very small, but lately I feel they appear in greater depth. And so there are other bodily changes that manifest themselves on my skin. Those are some changes in my hair structure, some hair gets frizzier and thicker then it used to be and eventually my teeth aren’t as shiny bright white as they used to be before my mornings began with a cup of coffee routine. [My teeth appear whiter on the image below, because I assume that thats an integrated function of my and nowadays everyones phone…]
While I am usually very happy with myself and any wonderful changes my body undergoes as I age, I felt that I needed a boost last week. Suprisingly that appears to be the result of me researching sustainable and circular business models for the fashion industry and hence, scanning fashion magazines, social media posts and anything related to beauty and fashion for weeks. Though I feel I am quite robust against these type of “influences”, somehow they began tickling my interest for a wardrope change and beauty tuning.
I hadn’t been very curious about the paradox of modern beauty in a while and yet I felt it was time to rekindle with that type of interest that I happily persued as a teen. However, this interest quickly stopped as I went through the beautyshelves in one store. What caught my interest was the advertisement of a make-up remover titled with ” Erase your face”.
Earsing… when I think about erasing I thought of school or any other moment in my life, when I wrote something that later was not important or something that I wrote by mistake or something that needed to be erased to be corrected, or just was not supposed to be there at all. My face.. when I think about my face I think about my identity, those natural eyebrows I have, any unique facial feature that turns me into that woman I am today, any interaction I have and any interpretation that others associate to me , when they see my face. But erasing my face? NO WAY!!!
Of course, the commercial does not mean for anyone to truly erase their face, but this type of advertisement can give people the feeling that their current look is not enough; that the way they truly are is not enough. And in doing so, it removes that sort of identity that makes you – you and me-me.
The advertisment made me skip then more through other shelves and my desire to tune my face a little bit, turned into a social-cultural dilemma. It made me realize how heavily beauty industries are pushing new beauty standards and norms to sell their product, that the product in itself, becomes a burden and supports a crisis of identity – the ability that the self is not enough; that you need to smell a certain way, that you need to look a certain way, that you need to be a certain way to be accepted.
Wouldn’t it be more fun, if companies would promote products that promote that natural you? And what responsiblities have beauty companies to begin with? Should they tell you how to look or should you tell them how you want to feel like and thus, how products could help you? Should they promote creams and products that help your skin to be protected such as from the cold and heat, soaps and shampoos that support your hygiene instead of “sparkly, wrinklesless perfect skin ” ?
Sustainability is not just about the ecology
Sustainability is not just about ecological products, it is about sustainable production and consumption patterns, it is about a system change that crosses the interface of social, ecological and economic dimensions. If our own identity was promoted more, we would not feel like we needed to consume so much and so often and likewise, companies could possibly produce less, with higher quality and higher standards. There would be more happiness, less waste and ideally fairer environmental and social conditions to which goods and services are being produced.
And besides all, isn’t individuallity what makes us truly unique and human? And thinking about it, so far I was not rejected for a job because my eyebrows weren’t trendy enough.. I think I want to keep it that way and you should too!
One of the many reasons that make me support bio-based materials, is their untapped potential as circular material. There is no sand or mineral that can transform itself as a result of anerobic digestion processes as ecological and energy efficient then bio-based materials.
Transforming bio-based resources has multiple benefits. One of them is the fact that we use re-growing organic matter that (quickly) captures carbon, we then move it or simply transform it and at the end of the materials’ life-cycle it can become [ideally] one with nature again- dead organic matter.
In addition, using, re-using, up-cycling and recycling bio-based materials will be one of the key components in tackling the climate crisis and accounting for environmental responsibilty as well. The reason is that bio-based materials can be transformed into other by-products along the value chain and therefore aid in reducing scope 3 emissions (nex tto scope 1 and 2 emissions).
Scope 3 emissions are those emissions that occcur outside of control of the company such as transport and waste disposal. They constitute up to seventy-five percent of a company’s emission footprint and therefore inhibits a firm’s ability to pursue the most cost-effective carbon mitigation strategies (Downie and Stubbs, 2013). Another disadvantage is that scope 3 emissions are not accounted for in the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Our current GHG inventories are therefore incomplete, or misleading.
Yesterday, I watched an excellent Webinar by UNDP on the Circular Economy and a New Generation of NDCs. It was highlighted that a country could be well on track to achieve its NDCs as most of the production, where emissions are occuring, have been outsourced. But if we would look at emissions from a “consumption” perspective”, countries would be much less likely to meet their NDCs. This particular relates to the fact that only scope 1 and 2 emissions are accounted but not scope 3 emissions.
Type 3 emissions can be largely reduced if we look at bio-based materials
When we look at the bio-based model of the circular economy, lets say for housing, it is relatively easy to point out that organic waste can be used for multiple purposes. On the image below, waste water is used and transformed into energy, which is again used to supply energy for the household and other applications.
This model can also be applied to entire cities such as on the image below. This model also runs on the integration of renewable energy and bio-based waste to generate energy and add value to the urban setting as well. The model would not function, if it would not incorporate organic waste.
The bio-based economy is more efficient then the non-bio based economy
Of course, circularity also works with other non-biobased materials, but there are limits to their re-utilization and their potential in mitigating scope 3 emissions. In the webinar an excellent example of a “smartcrusher”, which breaks concrete back into its homogenous ingredients was pointed out. I like that it is possible to reutilize these ingriedients, but there are emission limits towards their reutilization and value additon.
Bio-based materials are the answer to carbon neutrality
On the opposite, if we were to adapt more bio-based materials, we could use less finite materials, create value from organic waste products and meanwhile, add value throughout the production. An excellent example for me is bamboo, because of its versatile industrial applications and alternative to steel.
If we look at the production of bamboo boards, each waste component can be used and transformed again either in the form of energy [i.e. gas, electricity] or products [i.e. pellets, charcoal, bio-char]. I like the image of a wood production process below, because it illustrates the versatility of timber waste products. This also applies to bamboo, besides that bamboo grows much quicker and drives well in degraded soils.
Bio-based materials help our planet thrive
A few months ago my former thesis -supervisor introduced me to the concept “ThriveAbility”. ThriveAbility reframes sustainability by focusing on the positive benefits of collectively living within our means ( operating within the carrying capacities of capitals). ThriveAbility does this by weaving two additional dimensions into the sustainability equation that remedy the Social and Governance weak spots, while catalysing context-based environmental performance. It basically looks at adding value to our environment instead of exploiting it (Baue, 2016).
With bio-based products we can do so. An example is bio-char that can be produced as waste product and be fet back into farms. Biochar can be used as soil enhancer as it holds carbon, boosts food security, and increases soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water. Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer (InternationalBiocharInitative, 2019)
Mitigating scope 3 emissions works well on the local level
Since our supply chains are connected across the globe, it is more difficult to achieve carbon neutrality during transportation. But if we would overall , in each region and city of the supply chain focus more on bio-based materials [and renewables], we could feed more energy into our transportation system and therefore ensure that we are meeting our global target under Paris.
My ideal supply-chain would be an integrated bio-based supply chain, which integrates circularity on each stage of it. Since there are growth-limits for bio-based materials, I would emphasize circular business models for end consumers and producers; 1. To capture product value and 2. To have sufficient time for circular systems to regenerate within out planetary boundaries.
Have you become intersted to calculate your Scope3 emissions? I found an excellent technical guideline by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which provides standards, guidance, tools and training for business and government to measure and manage climate-warming emissions. You can access it here.
For questions and comments, feel free to contact mebelow.
Brunklaus B., Riise E. (2018) Bio-based Materials Within the Circular Economy: Opportunities and Challenges. In: Benetto E., Gericke K., Guiton M. (eds) Designing Sustainable Technologies, Products and Policies. Springer, Cham
A few weeks ago I watched a Netflix documentary on healthy diets, which highlighted the versatile and healthy diets of hunter gathrers. Hunter-gatherer culture was the way of life for early humans until around 11 to 12,000 years ago. The lifestyle of hunter-gatherers was based on hunting animals and foraging for food.
What I liked most about the documentary was to see a balancing interaction between humans and their ecosystem. Whatever they used to hunt, to wear and to cook was bio-based and once an item fullfilled its purpose such as food, a used spear or old clothes, they could be thrown away and turned one with nature again. Life focused on necessities, instead of likeabilities; whatever had been thrown away, needed to be thrown away.
Our way of interacting with the “real word” drastically changed and we started to become adjusted to as well as to desire materials that are non-organic. These are materials that at the end of their life-cycle accumulate in the environment somewhere, rather then becoming part of it. These are also materials that can be produced very quick!
Some of these materials include synthetically produced textiles, or the processing and use of sand and metals for construction. Others include plastic to wrap goods, or fossil fuels to supply us with heat. Hunter gatherers instead would have hunted for food and would have used all parts of their pray such as the skin for leather. They would have collected wood from the sourroundings to serve as a source of heat and fire wood. Whatever waste they had created in their different tribes, turned one with nature again.
Nowadays we are driving on quick consumption, the rush it evokes in us, the happiness it brings and the quick accessibilty for it. One click on Amazon and we can buy the new shirt of our favorite Instagram feet or those that Tom and Jaz are wearing. Another click and we can buy new shoes and a few years later, we finally can buy that interior decor we always wanted. The industry knows that and they are more then dedicated to supply new products and innovations on a rapid basis.
The industry also knows that our resources are running short, environmenal regulations are turning stronger and therefore increasing research to develop and re-apply bio-based materials. Suddenly the way of living with our environment such as of the hunter-gatherers appeals.
!Biobased materials do not equal sustainability
As an individual, I believe that you can think of various bio materials i.e. grass to produce paper or sheep woll for textile. But my favorite industrial bio-based “sustainable” material is bamboo, because it matures within 3-5 years and it can be processed into almost everything. It is also my favorite ecological resource, because it stores water year round, regenerates degraded lands and can serve as an alternative to tropical timber.
While I truly support bamboo as an alternative to other materials, I also acknowledge that its growth rate of 3-5 years is limited. Let’s say if we had 16.000 hectars of bamboo and needed all that bamboo to supply sufficient fibre in one year, then it is likely not as “renewable at the end”. I also acknowledge that certain processing methods such as the chemical once for fibre production, make it less ecological and biodegradable. This is the opposite for mechanically produced fibres, but the processing is lenghty and labour intensive. This currently makes it less desirable by the industry.
To continue promoting or developing ecological, fair or lets say “slow” materials within the current consumption model, the only way to go forward is the Circular Economy. I would say that the Circular Economy aligns well with the principles of the hunter gatherers, as waste turns into value again.
Why is that important?
Because if we want to continue promoting sustainable materials (let’s say ecological, not causing deforestation, no pollutions entering the environment), then we have to acknowledge that there are limits to growth for “bio-based materials.” Yet, to maintain that current economic model, we simply capture the value of products at the end of their lifecycle. In doing so , businesses keep the value in the company and consumers can maintain similiar consumption models.
We can achieve this by promoting business models for the circular economy that capture the value, of products and materials at the end, but also throughout the production of a product.
Would you like to know more about business models for the circular (bio-based) economy and receive help with identifying integrated models that are most suitable for your business?
To date construction projects are following the linear economy in which man-made resources such as brickets, metals, cement and clay are used and disposed at the end of a buildings’ life cycle. In 2017, buildings and constructions together consumed 36% of the final energy produced globally while being responsible for 39% of the global energy related CO2 emissions (Gobal Status Report, 2017). Another problem is the accumulating waste and the environmental impact of the resources extracted. In Europe, each year nearly 500 million tonnes of construction waste are created.
Besides these negative effects, it also has negative effects on the “sustainability” of the building industry itself. As we consume more, and re-use less materials, we are facing resource scarcity. Coupled with a growing population and increasing urbanization, new ways of producing buildings and building components with new materials or existing once are crucial for the survival of the building industry but also our planet. One of the many material-solutions towards a sustainable building industry is bamboo.
Throuhgout the last years, bamboo has been engineered into various products. Due to its fast growth and its tensile strenght, I frame engineered bambo as a niche product that directly competes with timber. With my Master thesis, I even concluded that bamboo boards outweight timber products made from oak, maple, walnut, birch and cherry in terms of its strength properties and durability. I also concluded that missing design choices of bamboo boards turn it into a less favorable resource for timber producers and consumers. Likewise, engineered bamboo outweights timber in terms of its properties and is perceived as excellent building material, if it is less visible or more available with greater design variance.
While I am not an engineer, I kept the latter in mind and compared the most used construction materials with existing or new bamboo innovations and materials.
My aim was to identify the versatile role of bamboo as sustainable construction material
As mentioned above cement, concrete, aggregates, metals, bricks, clay are the most common type of man-made building materials used in construction. Next to these natural materials, wood is also used frequently (Wang, 2018).
Cement, is a binder, a substance used for construction that sets, hardens, and adheres to other materials to bind them together. There is no present bamboo cement replacement.
Concrete and cement are often used interchangeably, cement is actually an ingredient of concrete. Concrete is a mixture of aggregates and paste. The aggregates are sand and gravel or crushed stone; the paste is water and cement. While it is not possible to fully replace concrete with bamboo, it is possible to produce bamboo reinforced concrete (Karthik et al., 2008)
Currently steel reinforcement is used frequently to provide additional tensile strength and energy absorption capacity to concrete members. But conventional M.S. (Mild steel) or HYSD (High Yielding Strength Deformed) bars are heavy in weight, costly, nonrenewable and un-ecofriendly material. To mitigate this concern a sustainable, renewable, ecofriendly material like bamboo can be used as steel substitute. Using bamboo reinforcement even improves the flexural performance of slab panels (Mali and Datta, 2018).
However Archila, Kaminski, Trujilo, Escamilla and Harries (2018) describe that “the poor durability and bond characteristics of bamboo require through-thickness treatment and additional surface treatment of bamboo reinforcement, respectively. Such treatments, as described in the literature, are labour intensive, costly, and often utilise materials of known toxicity .”
Metals are commonly used in the construction industry due to their durability and strength to form structural components, pipework, cladding materials and other components.
Bamboo isstronger than the metal steel, in regards to the tensile strength. Overall, the ratio of tensile strength between the weight of bamboo is six times greater than of steel. If treated and processed well, buildings can be fully engineered with bamboo. As highlighted above, bamboo can be used as concrete reinforcement and steel alternative.
Construction aggregate, or simply “aggregate”, is a broad category of coarse to medium grained particulate material used in construction, including sand, gravel, crushed stone, slag, recycled concrete and geosynthetic aggregates. Aggregates such as sand are the most mined materials in the world. According to the World Economic Forum (2019), between 32 and 50 billion tonnes of aggregate (sand and gravel) are extracted from the Earth each year. Excessive sand mining of river deltas, such as the Yangtze and Mekong, is increasing the risk of climate-related disasters, because there’s not enough sediment to protect against flooding.
I found one study, in which concrete samples were produced with 1% and 3% bamboo fibers as additives. It was concluded that the addition of bamboo fiber increases the compressive strength of concrete. Substituting coarse aggregates with certain percentage of bamboo fiber produced a decreasing trend on its flexual strength, though it increased as the bamboo fiber composition/materials increased (Manlapas , Cardenas, Anacta, 2018).
Another study incoroporated bamboo ash into fly ash geopolymer concrete. It concluded that bamboo ash can be one of the alternatives to geopolymer concrete when it faces exposure to high temperatures.
I found only one website that sells” bamboo bricks” , but it does not describe the content of the bricks. Another study applied bamboo waste material (charcoal) on ecobricks.
Different types of wood and wood materials are also used for the construction of buildings. The company SwissKrono, produces prefabricated timber construction and uses a mix of timber and non timber material on project base. Solid timber constructions involve prefabricated sturby but relatively lightweight walls, ceilings and roof modules that are assemblied on the construction site. Other materials include the construction frames which are stabilised with OSB panels. There are also penalised constructions, in which walls and ceilings are largely prefabricated.
These type of constructions can also be produced from bamboo and likely outweight timber due to its lightweight, strength and hardwood characteristics. In addition, bamboo already matures within three to five years and could therefore serve as an alternative resource next to controversial produced timber , particular from the tropics.
A barrier for a fully ecological bamboo utilzation is the type and the amount of chemicals used for the production of engineered bamboo products. If bamboo products are produced in closed loop systems or if bio-based resins are used, bamboo could serve as a truly sustainable and circular building opportunity. Another option would be to produce modular bamboo buildings or components, that can be re-used at the end of the buildings life cycle.
The future of the bamboo building industry looks promosing, particular as a result of bamboo being a strong and lightweight material. However, at the moment, it seems difficult to replace conventional building materials such as cement, concrete and aggregates with bamboo. The main potential of bamboo remains in being an alternative to steel as bamboo composite material and as major structural support for buildings. Bamboo also holds huge technical potential as “background matrial” (i.e. MDF/OSB plates/ foundation). A new option seems to integrate bamboo ash into fly ash geopolymer concrete. A study suggested that bamboo ash can be one of the alternatives to geopolymer concrete.
Overall I believe that bamboo serves as a valuable “green opportunity” for the building industry that is interested in new designs, innovation and the mechanical characteristics of bamboo. With bamboo naturally degrading in the forest after at least 10 years, we can promote the use of this resoruce and the concept of “No building is meant to last forever”.
[There is one promising bamboo innovation that I did not highlight in the article. I am looking for a serious team to explore this innovation and bring it on the construtction market. Please e-mail me if you are interested] And also e-mail me for any other questions or comments.
Archila, H., Kaminski, S., Trujillo, D., Escamilla, E. Z., & Harries, K. A. (2018). Bamboo reinforced concrete: a critical review. Materials and Structures, 51(4), 102.
Karthik, S., Rao, R. M., Awoyera, P., Akinwumi, I., Karthikeyan, T., Revathi, A., … & Saravanan, S. (2018). Beneficiated pozzolans as cement replacement in bamboo-reinforced concrete: the intrinsic characteristics. Innovative Infrastructure Solutions, 3(1), 50.
Mali, P. R., & Datta, D. (2018). Experimental evaluation of bamboo reinforced concrete slab panels. Construction and Building Materials, 188, 1092-1100.
Manlapas, G. O., Cardenas, L.E., Anacta, E.T. (2018). Utilization of Babmoo Fiber as a Component Material in Concrete. Indian Journal of Science and Technology. 11(47).
Bamboo provides a unique opportunity to meet European building and consumer demands as steel and timber alternative under the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Priorities.
Throughout my five months stay in Indonesia, I was able to receive in-depht insight into the present challanges and opportunities of bamboo for the Indonesian and international market. I looked at the potential of bamboo for the European Market as sustainable building opportunity , the current bamboo market in Indonesia, forestry and trade regulations and how it compares economically to other cash crops.
This menu is still in progress but aims at illustrating the potential of bamboo for the Circular Economy. In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible. Waste and resource use are minimised, and when a product reaches the end of its life, it is used again to create further value. This can bring major economic benefits, contributing to innovation, growth and job creation.
Explore more about the potential of bamboos’ role in the circular economy below
Today, I visited one of Bali’s small but beautiful Botanical Gardens and decided to move my eye and camera attention a little bit more up than the ususal straight forward. Doing so was truly amazing, because it allowed me to quickly recognize a beautiful canopy cover formed by various tree and plant species – excluding bamboo.
A little later, I entered an area in which only bamboo was growing. I quickly recognized its beautiful canopy cover, but much more dense.
As I thought about the picture I took of the bamboo canopy, I felt it was too dark as new phone screen background, but it also made me remember how important dense canopy covers are;
Forest canopies are hotspots of biological diversity, engines of global biochemical processes, and the dynamic interface between organic nature and the atmosphere.
A dense canopy cover will let little light reach the ground and will lower temperatures. The canopy protects the ground from the force of rainfall and makes wind force more moderate -> habitat conditions on the ground are shaped by the degree of canopy cover.
With the monsoon rain starting to hit my face and soaking my clothes on my way back, I wondered about the potential of bamboo on the sides of roads (besides one spot that made me really happy and feel dry!). Would it help me and the many other scooter drives to stay more or less dry? Could it be integrated into urban and peri-urban tropical environments? What benefits would bamboo have?What disadvantages would it have?
Besides the biochemical benefits of general canopy cover listed above, here are a few more benefits of trees in urban settings. These likewise apply to bamboo;
Removal of pollutants from the air, soil and water
Interception of rainfall and reduction of storm water runoff (and thus, reducing the costs related to infrastructure required to manage it)
Energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions due to shade provided
Having lived in Jakarta for now 5 months and having visited Lombok and Bali, I would truly argue pro! bamboo (and trees). The picture below provides the main argument.
Pros’ for bamboo:
The truly dense canopy cover
Its related ability to provide shade and protect drivers as well as pedestrians from rain
The immense ability to store water
Its root system – very strong and beneficial in areas prone to earthquake – not as deep as tree root system ,
Con’s for bamboo:
Its “invasive” root system if not protected well
The need for proper management, i.e. removal of degrading poles
Eventually its strong leaf fall.
Conclusively, I would argue that there are various benefits for bamboo. In terms of urban and peri-urban settings, its main benefit relate to its strong leaf cover and ability to store and absorb water. Likewise, the canopy cover may be less in areas with strong underground construction and decreasing flexilbity for bamboo growth. This applies more or less to areas (i.e. cities) with less space.
Nakamura, A., Kitching, R. L., Cao, M., Creedy, T. J., Fayle, T. M., Freiberg, M., … & Malhi, Y. (2017). Forests and their canopies: achievements and horizons in canopy science. Trends in ecology & evolution, 32(6), 438-451.
To begin with, bamboo truly is a fast growing resource, which has turned it into a favorable renewable resource. However, being renewable does not imply that it is sustainable in the processed stage such as with (some) bamboo textile. Since there have been debates about bamboo being a sustainable opportunity for textiles, I decided to look into the general textile production process and evaluate, whether bamboo textile truly is as sustainable or how it would need to be to be sustainable. To start, I decided to look into the different types of fibre groups used in the textile industry.
There are three basic types of fibre groups:
• Natural fibres
• Regenerated fibres
• Synthetic fibres
“Regenerated and synthetic fibres are collectively known as man-made or manufactured fibres. Natural fibres are, as the name suggests, those which occur in nature, such as wool from sheep or cotton from cotton plants (Kozlowski, 2012a, 2012b). Regenerated fibres are made from natural polymers that are not useable in their original form but can be regenerated (i.e. reformed) to create useful fibres (Woodings, 2001). One of first regenerated fibres was rayon, also referred to as viscose or viscose rayon, regenerated from wood pulp. In contrast, synthetic fibres are made by polymerising smaller molecules into larger ones in an industrial process (McIntyre, 2004), “(Sinclair, R, 2015).
In what category does bamboo textile fall into?
Bamboo in itself is a natural material, it is famous and loved for its quick growth and versatile purposes. Bamboo is rich in cellulose, which forms the plant fibres. You can see them in the images below (the dark dotted parts in the culm crosscut). The lighter part is the lignin, the organic substance that is binding the plant fibres.
While bamboo fibres are indeed natural, the process of producing textile from bamboo turns into a man-made production process. I was able to find two bamboo textile production processes; The mechanical and chemical process.
The mechanical process
In the mechanical process, known as “thermomechanical fibre processing“, fibers are being extracted by firstly splitting the culms or by crushing them. These parts are then being cooked with alkaline phosphatase (a salt, but also natural acting enzyme) to extract the fibres (this step is also known as degumming). Once degummed, the fibres are being washed, dried and spinned for the production of textile.
Because this process involves the use of enzymes for the extraction of the fibers, it is one of the most environmentally friendly methods.
On the left image below you can see the bamboo’s natural very thin fibers, that are difficult to extract by hand. Because they keep their natural “rough” characteristics in the mechanical process, they are less favored by consumers. On the right image you can see two types of fibers. Can you guess, which one is the natural man-made fibre bundle?
The chemical process
The chemical process (regenerated fiber processing) differs largely to the mechanical one. It is used moslty for industrial purposes. It is the process by, which the smooth and soft form of bamboo textile, known as bamboo viscose, is produced (see white bamboo bulk on the image above). In this process all noncellulose constituents of the culm are removed. I would describe that as any natural surface material that “protects or covers” the fiber (viscose). “Raw cottons, for instance, contain a number of noncellulosic materials that are generally considered to be surface related and may therefore affect fiber quality , ” (Brushwood, 2003).
For the chemical process, a pulping process is used in which the cellulose fibres is seperated from bamboo pulps through chemical applications (see image above). First of all, bamboo fibres are cooked to remove any polymers (kind of like the natural glues) and organic acids. This process helps to losen the fibre structure and to have chemicals penetrate into the fibers more easily. During that process chemicals are added. ” Most common are the Kraft and sulfite pulping processes. Alternatively, alkaline (sodium/anthraquinone) or organosolv (ethanol, or acetic or formic acid) are used and followed by multiple bleaching sequences, ” (Van Dam, 2018). Once the process is completed, bamboo fibres can be filtered and spinned.
The “biofriendly” chemical process
I happened to come across one more “biofriendly” processing method in which Lyocell is produced from bamboo. Lyocell is “a cellulose fiber that is precipitated from an organic solution in which no substitution of the hydroxyl groups takes place and no chemical intermediates are formed, ” (Chen, J., 2015).
During the process of lyocell production (smooth and soft fiber), only one organic compound is used to dessolve the fibers known as N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMMO). The production process then seems to be simliar to the one that produces viscose, with the only difference that waste such as waste water seems to remain in the production system (closed loop production) and therefore does not result into environmental contamination.
Comming back to the initial question, I would argue that bamboo viscose, used most in the industry, is not sustainable, or in other terms ecologically produced. Many chemicals are being used for the production and it may be unclear, where these and particular waste waters are released to. In addition, these chemicals can also hugely negatively impact the health of manufacturers. Lyocell production, which appears to be less used by the industry, but receives a growing recognition, seems to be promoising in terms of fiber quality, and its closed-loop production process. The traditional, mechanical process, seems to be the most ecological, but less appealing in terms of product quality as the properties of the fibers remain rather natural at this moment. It seems that it is possible to create high quality fibres with the mechanical process, but I could not find sufficient Information.
While I have mixed feelings about the different production processes, I still rate bamboo high for textile, due to its fast growth. In comparison to other viscose that is deprived from wood, be it certified or not, I would argue that bamboo fiber provides a sustainable resource to others such as conventional timber or eucalyptus, which is known for its high rates of water consumption.
Another example is cotton. Gobally cotton covers just 2.4% of the worlds’ cultivated land, but uses less then 6% of the worlds’ pesticides (and 16% of isecticides), more than any other single major crop. On the other hand, bamboo can grow with minimum to no fertilizer and pesticide inputs. Bamboo is a pioneer plant that can grow in margenalized and degraded land, where other crops couldn’t.
For people concerned about deforestation, but not “ecological production”, I would vow for bamboo textile. However, if we were to clear land for the establishment of bamboo plantations I would out-vow bamboo textile!
How does the future for bamboo textile look like?
First of all, I would argue that we should move away from fast-fashion clothing and choose clothing that is made to last. If we buy textile made from wood viscose and throw it away after a single season, we are neglecting the fact that wood takes more then one season to grow. Bamboo on the other hand, which takes around three years to mature, provides a more sustainable opportunity. However, as with bamboo, I wish that bamboo fibers are produced while meeting sustainability criterias; sustainable sourced bamboo (minimal pesticide and water control during cultivation) and bamboo sourced from sustainable managed forests, bamboo produced in environmentally/people friendly conditions.
The next post will be about how the different bamboo fiber processing methods effect the quality of bamboos’ unique features “bacteria resistancy, water absorbtion etc”. Stay tuned 🙂
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