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  • Writer's pictureMichaela A de Guire

Is bamboo fabric sustainable?

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Upon further reflection and deeper research I have learned that bamboo, the plant, is in fact sustainable. Also, I learned that two out of the three types of fabric are sustainable and only one rates as the cleanest out of them all and still holds the plant's antibacterial benefits.

How is bamboo sustainable?

Bamboo once established grows fast, really fast, approximately 1.5 inches an hour fast. Bamboo is a colony plant, that means it uses its energy to expand its roots to grow more shoots and takes about 3 years to get established. After it is established the shoots, or rather canes, grow for approximately 60 days, then stop growing. The energy is redirected back to the roots for the development of more canes.

When you cut bamboo or harvest bamboo, the cut bamboo cane will unfurl new leaves, these leaves will create and send energy to the roots, encouraging new shoots. Thus, the more that is harvested the faster it grows. When bamboo is properly managed and intensively harvested it can sequester up to 1.78 tons of CO2 per clump, that's 10x faster than that of a woody tree.

Up close and personal with the bamboo grass

Bamboo itself can be a very sustainable crop as it does not need much water. It does not require any fertilizer and it is naturally regenerating from its roots, so once planted and harvested there is no replanting required. When you consider cotton and compare it to bamboo, then the sustainability and longevity is clear as day (well, almost).

There are two types of bamboo and one is rather invasive, while the other is not. In running bamboo the rhizome, which is a stem that grows horizontally under the surface and puts out new shoots and roots, grows away from the clump, and can spread rapidly. However, the clumping bamboo rhizomes grow vertically, spreading upward, above the surface and thus growing directly off each other causing clumping to occur. It is the “clumping” bamboo that is not invasive.

So, now you know how bamboo grows, you know it is a super sustainable crop that requires no human assistance, but is it sustainable as a fabric? Before you decide to change everything to bamboo, let’s dig a little deeper into the process of turning it into a usable fabric.

Three types of bamboo fabrics

After it is harvested, bamboo can be turned into a fabric in three different ways. Two of which are chemical processes and the other is mechanical. The mechanical process requires crushing the bamboo wood parts and applying a natural enzyme called brewers yeast suspension (primarily lipase, amylase and protease enzymes) to break down the bamboo cell walls, thus turning it into a mushy mass. The natural fibers are then washed and are then mechanically combed out and spun into a yarn, which is then woven together creating a linen-like fabric. This is the highest quality of bamboo and the yarn has a silky texture, offering a wonderful benefit that flax-linen does offer. The best part is when the bamboo is made using the mechanical process the fabric is strong and long-lasting and there is no damage to the environment. This method is also beneficial as this is the only bamboo fabric that is guaranteed to offer the beneficial properties of the bamboo plant (e.g. antibacterial). The mechanical process does not mess with the chemical structure of the plant while it is being processed.

The weaving of yarns into a usable fabric

The first chemical process is what many prefer, as it is breathable and soft, making a traditional viscose rayon, except out of bamboo. This process is also inexpensive to do, and thus, is what many call the “fast-fashion-version” of bamboo. The first step is extracting the cellulose from the bamboo pulp. To do this the bamboo is broken down into tiny chunks and is exposed to chemical solvents to remove the cellulose. The cellulose is then compressed into sheets and exposed to carbon disulfide and then filtered. Then it is pushed through a spinneret, turning it into a thread. Once it is in this form it is then immersed into a vat (which is a large bath) of sulfuric acid to create filaments. The filaments are then spun into a yearn, which is then woven into fabric. This process is not sustainable as many of the chemicals used are unable to be reused or recycled.

The second chemical process results in a fabric that can be considered purely organic, because there is no changing the chemical structure of the cellulose. The viscose method results in chemical waste, this method although full of chemicals the manufacturers that produce this bamboo rayon (lyocell) have what is called a “closed-loop” process which means the chemicals used in the process are reused in the plant and never actually leave the plant. This is nice because it guarantees the solvents and other chemicals are not entering into the biosphere.

Textile manufactures have learned that due to the bamboo's high breathability, stretchiness, and strength it is easier than cotton, to weave bamboo into a high thread count fabric. This results in textiles that are greater in tensility (stretchability), but are extremely thin when compared to cotton.

Where does bamboo fabric originate?

Bamboo fabric is produced in a lot of countries, such as Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, and most recently in Europe and the United States. Bamboo is relatively sustainable and thus, many countries whether developed or semi-developed do in fact produce and export bamboo fabric and other bamboo merchandise.

Bamboo merchandise, hats, bags, baskets, t-shirts, etc.

Although, the largest producer of bamboo fabric is China. The reason? China offers lax environmental standards and rampant human rights abuses in the consumer goods production sector. Since China is not encouraged to grow or manufacture their goods in a sustainable and ethical manner, the production of bamboo (and other fabric) in China is the cheapest. It is also the most damaging to the environment and the humans, the people in production.

As I was saying earlier, bamboo rayon is a chemical process and thus it cannot be claimed as organic. However, you can look for certification such as the certified organic by the USDA on the mechanical process of bamboo. Others may not be authentically organic due to the chemical process. So be wary around people who claim they have organic viscose bamboo, because it is simply not possible with the intensity of chemicals used during production.

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