Growing the Future of Bamboo Products

Growing the Future of Bamboo Products

Bamboo has nothing but a positive reputation when it comes to the environment. It grows quickly, it doesn't need pesticides or much water, it pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, and it can be used in a nearly unimaginable range of products. With its well deserved, eco-friendly reputation, companies have been quick to integrate bamboo into product lines and new bamboo-based businesses continue to pop up.

There are now bamboo shirts, skirts, socks, underwear, furniture, floors, paper, plates, sheets, towels, plates, bowls, spoons, kitchen utensils, keyboards, cleaning wipes...practically enough items to outfit an entire house made with bamboo everything.

Method, the San Francisco-based cleaning-products company, uses bamboo for cleaning wipes, aroma rings as well as some of its packaging. And Totally Bamboo, a southern California-based company, sells more than 300 different bamboo-based products.

But with great demand comes the need for great supply. As more and more companies look to source products using bamboo, unsustainable harvesting methods may end up killing a resource that has so much potential.

One downside of bamboo's popularity is that it's at risk from overharvesting: The United Nations warns that about half of the 1,200 varieties of bamboo in the world are extinct or in danger of being eradicated.

Enter BooShoot Gardens, a plant tissue culture laboratory out of Mount Vernon, Wash., that is growing large amounts of specific types of bamboo to replenish and increase the world's bamboo supply and meet the demand from companies like Method and Totally Bamboo.

Jackie HeinricherFounded in 1998 by Jackie Heinricher, BooShoot produced 2,000 bamboo plants in 2004, the first year it released plants. This year it plans to produce more than 2 million, and has the capacity to produce 12 million.

The company sells its bamboo through wholesale growers and retailers in more than 20 states and Canada. It's been selling bamboo to a biofuel company in the southeast U.S., projects in South Africa and throughout Southeast Asia.

What's Driving the Bamboo Market

Bamboo has such a green reputation because it grows fast (earning it the moniker of a "rapidly renewable" resource as opposed to a plain old "renewable" resource, a title given to everything from trees to corn to chicken feathers), doesn't require pesticides, uses little water, and pulls carbon dioxide out of the air faster and better than other plants.

Bamboo plants sequester four times as much carbon dioxide as hardwood trees (taking in 62 tons of CO2 per 2.4 acres versus 16 tons per 2.4 acres of trees) and puts out 35 percent more oxygen.

While bamboo has been recognized for quite a while as a green material, its use has shot up in the last few years along with many other green materials. Bamboo goods are proliferating at major mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, and being used in clothing both from eco-centric companies and more mainstream ones like JCPenney and Banana Republic.     

The bamboo goods industry is expected to be worth $25 billion around 2012, Heinricher said, and some companies that make or are looking into making bamboo goods are encountering a supply bottleneck.

While this demand is boosting BooShoot's business, it's having a handful of negative effects on the global bamboo supply. As demand has increased and supply tightened, the final products have been affected. Bamboo flooring, for example, is generally much thinner these days than years ago, Heinricher said.

And then there's the rate of harvesting: Bamboo can be harvested every 5-10 years, much faster than trees used for other forest-based products. But harvesting is starting to outpace bamboo growth and its ability to recover. Cutting down too much bamboo in one area can damage an even-wider stretch of the plant.

"If more than 30 percent (of an acre) is taken at any one time, it begins to affect the viability of the root system and begins to compromise bamboo's ability to replenish itself," Heinricher said.

If an area of bamboo is damaged to the point that it needs to be replanted starting from seeds (or even if farmers want to start new bamboo groves from seeds), they are limited in how many seeds they can get their hands on since it can take 60-100 years for the plants to flower.

What BooShoot Gardens is doing is cutting out that long flowering period by cloning plants - not genetically modifying them - and multiplying them, letting farmers plant them like any other crop.

Tissue culturing is a complicated process of developing the right formula to work for specific plants, she said. Once the right formula is figured out though, BooShoot can grown cloned plants and divide them over and over until they have the desired amount.

Right now, BooShoot is working on 60 bamboo species that are commercially valuable, able to be used for multiple purposes and able to be used in multiple countries. But expanding the domestic production of bamboo would both pave the way toward a greener future -- and create local jobs at the same time -- but also harken back to a past where the U.S. was thick with bamboo.

Heinricher said that one species of bamboo used to cover 5 million acres of the country, including Maryland, Missouri, Florida and Texas. The U.S.'s cotton belt is suitable, she said, for growing the type of bamboo that is being grow in China to produce most bamboo products imported by the U.S.

And perhaps most importantly, a larger, more locally available supply of bamboo would be a boon for companies that want to make and sell, or already offer, bamboo products.

Building a Green Bamboo Supply Chain

Although Method has not yet encountered any issues finding bamboo to use, the company has faced complications owing to the bamboo boom. "Our challenges have been that as bamboo has become a more popular material, we've seen the price go up with that demand increase," said Gerry Chesser, Method's vice president of operations. "It's been challenging to maintain our costs because of supply, but we have not had any particular problems procuring supply from the partners we buy from.

"Sourcing bamboo in the U.S. may be of interest to us in the future ... if domestic options exist once we've proven the product to be a commercial success, we'll pursue those options for a number of good reasons."

When Method first considered using bamboo, Chesser said, the company went to the source of the bamboo it ended up using, finding out what mill it was coming from, and tracing the supply chain down to the independent farmers harvesting the bamboo.

"We were able to validate the supply chain going into the mill, and we observed the farming methods, compensation structure and the actual mill processing," Chesser said. "From that perspective, our material audit went from the farm to the finished product that we sell to our customers, and we're very comfortable with our results from a sustainability perspective."

Totally Bamboo has developed a similar method for ensuring its supply of bamboo is maintained. The company only sources bamboo that is grown naturally, not on plantations. The first company that Totally Bamboo sourced from, starting 10 years ago, grows bamboo in an area that has been used for bamboo harvesting for thousands of years, said Totally Bamboo founder Tom Sullivan.

"We just basically talked to people until we found someone that subscribed to our same philosophies," he said.

Totally Bamboo still sources from that first company and three other factories in China. Although they ensure their suppliers aren't overharvesting, they're expecting a bamboo shortage within the next two years due to a big freeze that killed off a lot of young, growing bamboo a few years back. They're also seeing prices slowly creep up as demand for bamboo across the board increases.

As for possibly sourcing from within the U.S., Totally Bamboo is already working on that. The company recently bought a six-acre plot of land and plans to grow as many species of bamboo that it can in order to keep those species of bamboo around.

"We are very aware of overharvesting," Sullivan said, "Because [bamboo] is our livelihood."

Bamboo forest - CC license by Selya235