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Bamboo: A Multi-Purpose Plant With Eco-Friendly Potential

Thursday, April 03, 2008 by: Cathy Sherman
Tags: bamboo, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) It can be stronger than iron, yet fragile as paper. It can be eaten as well as worn. As a source of medicine, it can heal. It cleans the air and makes music in the wind. Now, make room in your closets for the newest in textile plants... bamboo.

As the fastest growing woody plant on earth, bamboo has a short growth cycle. Some bamboo species can grow up to one meter daily, which makes it a rapidly renewable resource. Because it is so versatile and high-yielding, it solves the problem of replenishing many consumables within a short time.

There are over 1600 species of bamboo which have adapted to many environments. It can be harvested in three to five years, whereas most softwoods take ten to twenty years. Bamboo also tolerates extremes of precipitation, from 30-250 inches of annual rainfall, as well as droughts.

Environmentally, this grass generates 35% more oxygen than an equivalent amount of trees while it cleanses the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and purifies the soil. Its roots help prevent erosion and rain run-off. In addition it provides shade, an acoustical barrier and a wind break.

As a building material, bamboo has advantages over wood due to its flexibility, strength and light weight. These qualities also allow it to "dance" during an earthquake. After the violent 1992 Costa Rica earthquake, only the bamboo houses from the National Bamboo Project remained standing in the affected area.

Bamboo's versatility applies to other building uses also. Ply bamboo can be used for wall paneling and
flooring, while the stalks serve as raw material for housing construction and rebar for reinforced concrete beams. Bamboo's tensile strength is 18,000 pounds per square inch, making it stronger than any other wood.

What is more exciting, it is possible to plant and grow your own bamboo home! In tropical climates, with a 20 meter by 20 meter plot, two 64 square meter homes can be constructed from the harvest in the course of five years. Every year after that, one additional house can be built per plot.

Medically, bamboo has for centuries been used in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. Its powdered, hardened secretion is used internally to treat asthma and coughs. Ingredients from the root of the black bamboo help treat kidney disease, and bamboo roots and leaves have been used to treat venereal disease and cancer. It is said that its sap can reduce fever and its ash will cure prickly heat. Current research is revealing bamboo's potential for many more health-enhancing uses.

Bamboo is also edible; it is used by the Japanese as a natural food preservative because the antioxidant properties of its pulverized bark prevent bacterial growth. Many an Asian dish calls for bamboo shoots - very young plants. It is often used as fodder for animals and food for fish.

For centuries the sound qualities of bamboo have been appreciated in uses from wind chimes to flutes. Its ambiance adds not only to the enjoyment of gardens but also home interiors. We prepare and serve foods with it and eat on it. Artists have utilized bamboo for the paper, the brush and the subject of artwork.

In addition to building with it, using it for health and nutrition and its many other practical applications, we now wear bamboo. It is used in textiles for everything from towels and underwear to men's sweaters. Bamboo offers many surprising advantages in clothing: it offers breathing/wicking properties, elasticity, softness, and absorbability. It also takes up dyes easier, which means less dye needs to be used. It is less coarse than linen, hemp and burlap - other plant-based fabrics.

The pesticide problem with cotton has not been a factor with bamboo, and because it grows like a weed, it should not require great amounts of fertilizer. Still, organic certification for bamboo is not yet available since most of the bamboo used in the states comes from China. The best we have is the "Oeko Tex Standard 100" certification, which promises that there are no harmful chemicals in the finished fiber (even if chemicals were used in the processing of that fiber).

It isn't known how long bamboo will retain its natural pest-free status. At present it is grown among other plants in a natural state. When grown as a mono-crop in response to increased demand, it might lose this quality, causing growers to resort to pesticides.

The downside of bamboo as a textile is that it is subjected to the same kind of processing procedures as cotton or rayon, in that strong solvents are required to make it suitable for any textile use. These solvents affect the environment, as they are waste products of the manufacturing process. They find their way into groundwater when they are laundered out of the finished product. The health of processing-plant workers is also impacted by the solvents.

Though less harmful, mechanical methods are also available, they are less frequently used because they are more expensive. They work by crushing the bamboo into pulp, without adding the harmful solvents. More recently developed processes include closed-loop systems such as the Lyocell process used in making Tencel, and processes using safer solvents such as acetic acid. These may be used more frequently, as the demand for organically-processed bamboo textiles increases.

As a result of these factors, bamboo textiles are a mixed bag ecologically. While the crop itself so far gets high marks environmentally, the processing has the same negatives as cotton. Advances can be made in this area, but manufacturers have to feel the demand for this. Consumers can make their desires known, and as long as they are willing to pay the price, bamboo clothing can become a greener alternative.

About the author

Cathy Sherman is a freelance writer with a major interest in natural health and in encouraging others to take responsibility for their health. She can be reached through www.devardoc.com.

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