Friday, June 18, 2010

Bamboo – the grass that can be almost anything.

So what can I toss into a stir-fry, play a tune on, build scaffolding out of or put on a shirt made from? The answer is bamboo – the fastest growing member of the grass family. Right now I have several hand towels made of bamboo and a bag of bamboo shoots in the freezer. I'm debating planting some in my front yard (although it never looks healthy in neighboring yards so I might not) and flooring my house in it. Bamboo sounds like a miracle plant, but like everything it has a downside.

Wikipedia tells me that grasses can be considered the most important plant group. This group includes the grain and cereal crops people cultivate for food, wild grasses eaten by livestock or other animals, as well as bamboo, from which almost anything can be made. Bamboo shoots can be eaten, they are very tasty in a stir fry and they can be fermented into a sweet wine. Like other grasses, when bamboo is harvested it is cut, not dug up, so growing bamboo can add stability to soils and prevent erosion while producing a viable harvest.

Pesticides are not commonly used when cultivating bamboo. There are a few pests out there that like to munch on bamboo (I suppose pandas would be one), but they can be dealt with manually by cutting out the infested stems. Once the bamboo is harvested, pests become more of an issue. To prevent this, some large-scale operations treat the bamboo with a mixture that can include DDT. Dark flecks in the bamboo is often a hint that that bamboo has been treated this way. Once harvested, bamboo needs to cure. There are many ways this is done from soaking in water for months to burning techniques – it can even stored vertically and allowed to dry naturally. So, now the bamboo is ready to go.

Paper could be made through techniques mastered by the Chinese eons ago. Flutes could be made; I love the haunting sound that a bamboo flute can emit – it seems unearthly. Since I have no musical ability, I won't be making my own flute even though many websites exist to tell me how.

Bamboo fiber is becoming more and more available and is often touted as an eco-friendly option. Is it better than other fibers available? The answer is maybe; it depends how it was made. Bamboo can be made into fiber by two methods. The first, eco-friendly option is similar to how flax and hemp fiber is extracted. Stalks are crushed. Then natural enzymes take over breaking the fibers down more. Finally, the fibers can be combed out and used. The second method is essentially the same as how rayon is made from cotton. Harsh and toxic chemicals are used to break down the stalks and mechanical spinners extract the fibers. The label on my hand towels only say they are made from bamboo, not which method was used in the making of them.

If the first method is used, bamboo has a lot going for it. Like other natural fibers it is biodegradable. From the same sized space, bamboo produces ten times more fiber than cotton while requiring significantly less water. A website selling bamboo clothing says that bamboo fabric is soft (which is true of my towels), anti-fungal, anti-static and even cuts out most harmful UV rays. So, if you need a new shirt bamboo produced the right way is a great option. However, I don't recommend you throw out all your cotton shirts and replace them with bamboo - sometimes the most environmentally sensible option is to get the most wear and use out of the things you already have. But when your cotton shirts wear out, go shopping for a naturally prepared, bamboo shirt.

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