Bamboo is one of the most popular plastic alternatives offered to us today. And there are many reasons why the eco-conscious consumer choses the world’s fastest growing grass over other materials. Bamboo is strong and durable, yet light, has naturally anti-bacterial fibers, and can be harvested in an eco-friendly way. While all that checks off a lot of boxes, one important question remains: Is bamboo biodegradable?
Bamboo is 100% biodegradable. How long it takes to fully biodegrade depends on the kind of product, as well as the environment it is in. The process can last from a few weeks to up to over 10 years. For example, while a bamboo toothbrush in a home composting bin takes approximately 4 to 6 months to fully decompose, the biodegradation is slowed down significantly (5 to 10 years), if the same product is just left outside.
There are a few things every consumer should know before the purchase of a bamboo product, from a company’s manufacturing methods to easy steps that speed up or slow down the biodegradation process.
Biodegradability of Bamboo
Out of the total of over 1500 identified species, all kinds of bamboo are biodegradable.
Bamboo consists of 50-70% hemicellulose (which is present in almost all terrestrial plant cell walls), 30% pentosans (a group of polysaccharides found in many woody plants), and 20-25% lignin (organic polymers that form key structural materials in the support tissues of most plants).
The large amount of starch stored in bamboo makes it attractive to mold, fungi, termites and powderpost beetles. Unlike other timber varieties such as teak, bamboo does not posses toxic deposits that slow down biodegradation.
Untreated bamboo species have an average natural durability of less than two years. If treated properly however, the life expectancy of bamboo can be increased to over 50 years.
The durability of bamboo is also directly related to how well it is treated at all stages of its use, including its growth, the harvest and drying process, storage, transport, and installation.
The following factors speed up the biodegradation process:
- direct contact with soil
- exposure to rain or sun
- changing climatic conditions, such as variations in temperature and relative humidity
In order to prepare old bamboo products that are not used anymore to biodegrade, it is very helpful to cut the item into smaller pieces. This reduces the amount of time it takes to decompose significantly.
With the intention of protecting bamboo products for longer use, the wood and bamboo industry uses various treatments with high amounts of toxic chemicals. However, there are several eco-friendly alternatives that slow down biodegradation just as well.
Ingredients such as organic acids, essential oils, and eco-friendly chemical-based preservatives can improve the resistance to fungi and termites, and protect the bamboo.
Here’s an overview of how long different bamboo products approximately take to biodegrade (if disposed of in ideal conditions):
|Untreated bamboo pole||4-7 years|
|Bamboo toothbrush||4-6 months (at least)|
|Bamboo cup||1 year|
|Bamboo cutlery||2 months|
|Bamboo straw||1 year|
|Bamboo clothes||1 year +|
‘Biodegradable’ vs. ‘Compostable’
Bamboo is not only biodegradable, it is also compostable. But what exactly is the difference between these closely related terms?
‘Biodegradable’ means that something can break down naturally anywhere (usually in landfills), whereas the term ‘compostable’ refers to a specific setting in which an item decomposes faster.
Compostable items are added to compost piles, where they provide the soil with nutrients once the material has broken down.
In both cases, materials return to the earth safely without leaving waste behind, which makes them eco-friendly and sustainable.
Are all Bamboo Products Biodegradable?
From smaller items, such as toothbrushes, straws and plates, to flooring, curtains and even whole houses, bamboo is used for it all.
However, many of the products contain other materials besides bamboo. Lunch boxes for example, often have silicon sealing and toothbrush heads are made from plastic, as well.
This might be very obvious, but it is important to point out that ususally only the bamboo parts are biodegradable.
Keep in mind that it is necessary to separate the biodegradable parts from the rest to ensure proper disposal. For example, before a bamboo toothbrush can be left to decompose, the bristles need to be pulled out (pliers work well here).
Properties of Bamboo
Bamboo’s biodegradability is one of the most important reasons why the crop is so sustainable.
But there are several other characteristics that put it high up on the list of renewable resources. Here’s an overview.
- Due to a unique rhizome-dependent system, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. Some species grow 91 cm (36 in) within 24 hours!
- Bamboo can grow in places that would otherwise be unfit for vegetation, such as rocky hills and on slopes.
- Clumping bamboo purifies the air up to 30% more effectively than any other plant.
- Bamboo is incredibly sturdy – some bamboo species are stronger than steel!
- Bamboo prevents soil erosions.
- It is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.
- It takes the crop only about 3 years to get established. The new shoots will then grow for about 60 days. To put this in perspective, a tree can take 30 to 50 years to grow big enough to become timber.
- Bamboo has a very low carbon footprint.
Other Biodegradable Materials
Besides bamboo, there are a number of other natural biodegradable materials that are quickly becoming popular plastic and leather alternatives.
→ Cork is one of the most eco-friendly resources in the world. It is harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree, which allows the tree itself to continue capturing CO2 and provide us with clean air.
→ A biodegradable material made from linseed oil, ground limestone, cork dust, pigments, jute and other renewable substances. Linoleum is mainly known as flooring material.
→ While having the same strength as concrete, sand is not only biodegradable, but can also be reused and melted down. It is a key material for glass production. Keep in mind though, glass takes one million years (!) to decompose.
→ Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass sources, such as agricultural by-products. They are used as alternatives to the plastic items that are commonly made from oil or natural gas. However, there are strong arguments that suggest that (some) bioplastics are not as eco-friendly as they are made out to be.
→ This resource is not only known for its health benefits (it contains plenty of calcium, iron and several vitamins), it also produces as much as 70-80% of our planet’s oxygen. And it can be used to produce light, breathable fabric that is making the fashion industry greener!
→ Mycelium is a true all-rounder: It produces everything from plant-based meat to plastics. Like yeast, it belongs to the family of fungi, but unlike yeast it is multicellular, which allows it to grow into macro-size structures. Us humans can then use the fast-growing fibers to produce materials for packaging, clothing, construction or food.
→ Another favorite of the fashion industry: Hemp is hypoallergenic and non-irritating to the skin. It grows like a weed, regenerates soil, its growing process is carbon negative and it removes contaminating metals from the ground. Hemp is also a popular resource in other areas, such as construction and food production.
→ Often associated with quality clothing, cotton is light, soft and breathable. Despite its biodegradability, cotton is not necessarily eco-friendly. Its production is one of the most environmentally demanding. It is therefore very important to always ensure that the cotton used is certified organic.
→ Avocados not only taste great and provide plenty of nutrients, today some companies use them to make items, such as cutlery and straws.
→ Paper can be recycled 6-7 times before its fibers are too short for further production. It is biodegradable and recyclable, which makes it very popular in the packaging industry.