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EcoPlanet Bamboo aims to make alternative timber big business

This story originally appeared on BusinessGreen.

"People think bamboo is a joke," said Troy Wiseman, chief executive and co-founder of EcoPlanet Bamboo.

But the strides his company has made in commercializing the quick-growing grass as a sustainable means of tackling deforestation and resource shortages show bamboo yet could become a serious business.

Serial entrepreneur Wiseman founded EcoPlanet in 2010 to "solve the deforestation problems of the Fortune 500 companies" by providing an alternative fiber for timber-based products, including clothing, paper and sanitary products, that would end their reliance on trees from old-growth forests.

"70 million old-growth trees are cut down every year from natural boreal and tropical forests to make the clothing we wear," Wiseman said. "Companies like Marks & Spencer, H&M, Patagonia, Zara, etc., understand that there's a problem, that the fiber supply is getting smaller by the day. Environmental regulations are getting tougher and there's no way — with the population growing — that they can wait 100 years to replant those trees. So six, seven, eight years from now there's a big problem."

In contrast, Bamboo reaches maturity within seven years and can be harvested every year after that. Moreover, it grows on marginal land, meaning it does not compete with food production and requires very little fertilizer or water.

But there was a problem: the bamboo industry previously has centered on a patchwork of small farms and, in Wiseman's words, "hippie businesses" that simply could not provide the security of supply or quality of product global companies required.

Wiseman's solution has been to industrialize the bamboo industry, starting with a $10 million investment in plantations in Nicaragua and South Africa to sow non-invasive clumping bamboo. But as a self-confessed believer in "conscientious capitalism," he was determined to ensure the new large-scale operations were sustainable and benefited the local community.

EcoPlanet subsequently delivered profits three years running while providing 500 jobs for local workers, proving that over the next decade these plantations will sequester 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and restore thousands of acres of degraded land.

In doing so, it became the first bamboo company to achieve certification from the Forestry Stewardship Council, the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance and started generating carbon credits under the Verified Carbon Standard.

"Because we were the first, Rainforest Alliance (and other groups) put us through the wringer because they're going to put their name on it," Wiseman said. "We really had to earn it."

The company has leased 50,000 acres in Ghana for its third plantation and aims to employ 2,000 people by the end of this year. EcoPlanet Bamboo is primed to tap into a $10 billion market likely to grow rapidly with increasing demand from retailers for more sustainable fiber-based products.

"Right now we're focused on [replacing] the old-growth forest textiles like rayon and viscose, but eventually we'll go to cotton," Wiseman said. "Cotton causes deforestation and requires significantly more water per acre to grow than bamboo. If grown correctly, bamboo is a far more sustainable solution."

But his green vision also stretches further along the value chain to how the fiber is made. Company researchers have harnessed technologies to create a closed loop manufacturing system that eliminates the toxic sludge most pulp mills produce. And EcoPlanet has developed fuel products ranging from basic charcoal to more complex gasification technologies that can further benefit host communities and has attracted the attention of global energy players. A major partnership announcement is expected in May.

Other bamboo-based applications being developed by the company include "activated carbon" that can purify water and absorb mercury. But the World Bamboo Association suggests the material also could play a role in construction, bio-plastics, medicines and even vehicles such as ultra-light airplanes, while a report earlier this year by the Container Owner's Association found bamboo is being increasingly used for flooring in shipping containers.

The possibilities seem as wide as Wiseman's ambition, which suits a man who considered Steve Jobs his mentor and aims to make EcoPlanet the Apple of the timber industry.

"Steve Jobs said, 'I'm not inventing the computer, I'm not inventing the phone. I'm not inventing new industries — I'm making them better,'" Wiseman explained. "Well, that's what we're doing. We're not inventing toilet paper, but we're doing it in a way that's better, safer and more sustainable."

And despite what people might think, that's no laughing matter.

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