Is Bamboo Sustainable? What to Know Before You Buy

Written by • Last Updated November 19, 2020

Is bamboo sustainable? It seems like a simple yes or no question. But the truth is more nuanced than a one word response.

To answer the question of “is bamboo sustainable”, you need to understand how bamboo is grown, processed, and broken down. Depending on the final product, bamboo can be a sustainable material fit for an eco friendly home, or deceptively harmful to the environment.

If you want to be a conscious consumer who isn’t fooled by greenwashing, this guide to eco friendly bamboo is for you!

While I won’t dive into all the nitty gritty scientific details here, I will provide an overview of the bamboo lifecycle, how companies process bamboo for different commercial uses, and when to skip vs. buy products made with bamboo.

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Table of Contents

What makes bamboo sustainable?
Is bamboo biodegradable?
So is bamboo eco friendly?
Are all bamboo products sustainable?
What sustainable bamboo products are worth buying?

What makes bamboo sustainable?

Stalk of green bamboo growing in forest

Did you know that bamboo holds the world record for the fastest growing plant? A stalk of bamboo can grow nearly 3 feet in a single day!

And it’s not just the lightning fast growing speed that makes bamboo sustainable. It’s also surprisingly strong and durable given its length.

Contrary to popular belief, bamboo is a grass, not a wood. Its pliable and bacteria-resistant properties make it super versatile, which is why it’s used in everything from flooring to cutting boards.

Best of all, bamboo plants don’t require tons of water or pesticides to survive and thrive.

Fast-growing, strong, versatile, hearty… it seems like bamboo checks all of the boxes for sustainable natural materials. But there’s more to the story.

Is bamboo biodegradable?

Although it takes years for woods like pine and oak to fully break down, bamboo can decompose in around 6 months in home compost. Depending on the soil conditions, a bamboo toothbrush handle buried in the ground will biodegrade in about 3 years.

You can speed up the process by breaking the bamboo product into smaller pieces before composting, or by taking it to an industrial composting center.

So is bamboo eco friendly?

Yes and no. Bamboo can be eco friendly when it’s grown and harvested sustainably, minimally processed, and manufactured locally. Unfortunately that’s not often the case.

While bamboo can thrive around the world–including regions of Southeast Asia, Latin America, the southern US, and Africa–most commercially grown bamboo comes from China. So even if your bamboo products are made in the US or Europe, you can’t deny the environmental cost to transport the material halfway around the world.

And then there’s the skyrocketing demand for eco friendly bamboo products. Although it’s great that people are clamoring for renewable, sustainable materials, it’s put immense pressure on the supply chain to deliver more and more fresh bamboo. This desire to cash in on “green gold” has led to rapid bamboo deforestation in China.

Finally, we have to consider how the bamboo is processed. While brands love to claim that their bamboo products are eco friendly by their virtue of being made out of bamboo, that’s simply not enough (as you’ll soon find out).

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Are all bamboo products sustainable?

Hand holding blue and white reusable bamboo cup against peach background

From rugs to phone cases, you’ll find bamboo products of all shapes, sizes, and uses. I couldn’t possibly cover every single item in one post! So I’ve summarized the sustainability of bamboo products you’re most likely to find in stores.

Bamboo fabric

Of all the products made from bamboo, fabric is the least sustainable. And it’s mainly because of the harsh chemical process needed to convert the dense pulp into bamboo fabric. 

The process starts with bamboo getting crushed into a wet pulp. From there, the pulp passes through a series of chambers, where it’s chemically dissolved into a solution called bamboo viscose.

Those chambers contain highly toxic chemicals including sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide. These chemicals are hazardous to the environment and negatively impact animals, factory workers, water, and even the air we breathe.

After the chemical bath, the bamboo viscose travels through a spinneret and is cooled and dried to produce a solidified fiber. Finally, the fiber is bleached or dyed before being wound, shipped out, and eventually woven into rayon fabric.

If you know anything about textiles, you might be thinking this process doesn’t sound so different from how cotton is manufactured. But organic cotton avoids all of the harsh materials and chemical agents, making it a far more sustainable option than bamboo.

You may have heard of bamboo linen, which is produced without all the toxic chemicals of bamboo viscose. Unfortunately, it’s raw and rough feel isn’t suitable for clothing. But it does make for durable laundry and tote bags!

Bamboo containers and mugs

Bamboo cups and food containers are yet another example of “greenwashing”. Companies may claim these bamboo products are safe and eco friendly, but it’s a half truth.

Those cute reusable bamboo mugs and bento boxes are actually made from a mixture of bamboo fibers and melamine resin. While melamine itself isn’t dangerous, it releases dangerous chemicals–including formaldehyde–when exposed to high heat.

While you should avoid putting hot things into bamboo cups and containers, you can safely use them for cold and room-temperature foods and liquids.

Despite being mixed with resin, bamboo containers are fortunately still biodegradable.

If you’re looking for a reusable coffee cup and care about low impact living, it’s better to buy a stainless steel or hardened glass mug. While these materials may not be as sustainable as bamboo, their ultra-long lifespans make them a solid low-waste choice.

Finally, there are food storage containers with bamboo lids. The container is typically glass and the lids are made of layered bamboo, often with a silicone seal to preserve freshness. These are an excellent alternative to the plastic lids that come with most storage containers.

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Bamboo cleaning products

Finally, some bamboo products that are suitable for a sustainable lifestyle!

Popular items include dish scrubbers with bamboo handles and bristles, bamboo toothbrushes, and bamboo makeup remover pads. These products are durable thanks to the strong bamboo, but also easily biodegradable (even in home compost).

Check out the section below for more recommendations!

As with any product claiming to be eco friendly, it’s important to research the brand before making a purchase. Thanks to weak regulation, there’s nothing stopping a company from marketing a “bamboo dish brush” that’s 90% synthetic fibers.

Bamboo flooring

If you’ve been in the market for hardwood floors, you’ve probably wondered if bamboo is as sustainable as people claim. The answer depends on the manufacturer.

As discussed earlier, bamboo’s rise in popularity has led to unsustainable foresting practices. And most bamboo has to be shipped from China, which creates a massive carbon footprint.

That being said, bamboo flooring is long-lasting, biodegradable, and comes from a highly renewable resource.

Fortunately, some companies carry Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified bamboo flooring, meaning the bamboo was grown and harvested sustainably. If you want to ensure your bamboo is eco friendly, look for FSC-certified products and ask the company about their foresting practices.

What sustainable bamboo products are worth buying?

Bathroom counter with sustainable bamboo products including hairbrush, toothbrushes, and makeup brush

Now that you’re armed with knowledge, it’s time to do some shopping! Here are some truly sustainable bamboo products you can feel good about buying:

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