This is a guide outlining whether bamboo is more sustainable than plastic, and vice versa.
We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.
Summary – Is Bamboo More Sustainable Than Plastic?
In some ways bamboo is more sustainable than plastic, but there are also some ways that it isn’t
Some sustainability points to consider with the two are:
1. Bamboo comes from sustainable and renewable resources in bamboo fibres, whilst conventional plastic comes from non renewable fossil fuel feedstock (and plastic itself itself a synthetic material)
2. Bamboo might actually be more energy intensive and less environmentally friendly to produce than plastic (if we compare bamboo growing and production to organic cotton, where life cycle assessments show it lagging behind plastic across several environmental indicators in the case of plastic bags). A big variable with bamboo production too is whether it is bamboo rayon, and whether the process is closed loop or not
3. Bamboo products that don’t have synthetic chemicals, or treatments or additives, are usually biodegradable and have a much lower impact on the environment when it comes to end of product lifetime i.e. disposal and pollution. Plastic doesn’t break down easily (and when it does, it breaks down into micro and nano plastics), can have an adverse impact in the environment and wildlife if it becomes mismanaged waste (especially in rivers and the ocean)
Overall, from a sustainability perspective, closed loop bamboo rayon, and natural bamboo fibres that are sustainably sourced, have more potential to be a circular and sustainable material than conventional plastic.
But, individual environmental indicators at each stage of the material life cycle might show each different material being more sustainable in different ways
Re-using a bamboo product as many times as possible will average out it’s eco footprint, and obviously addresses waste pollution and litter problems much better than single use plastic (which has a high waste rate)
Common products where bamboo might be compared to plastic might be textiles such as clothing (where bamboo fibres and synthetic fibres carrying plastic are used), food carry bags, toothbrushes and other personal care products, furniture, clothes pegs, cutlery, and so on
*Note: This is a generalised guide. Ultimately, each company is going to source and make their plastic and bamboo products and packaging/items in different ways (which impacts their sustainability). How waste is managed and re-used, repurposed or managed also impacts sustainability. In addition to environmental indicators, there can be economic, human health and wild life/eco system indicators that impact sustainability.
Bamboo vs Plastic: Comparison
How They Are Made/Where They Are Sourced From – bamboo is sourced from renewable bamboo fibres (and can also be sourced from sustainably grown bamboo forests), whereas plastic comes from fossil fuel feed stock (crude oil and natural gas), and plastic is a synthetic material
Production – plastic might actually have less of an environmental impact to produce compared to bamboo products (which needs land, water, energy and other resources to be grown, harvested, processed, etc.). A Danish study comparing plastic bags to other types of bags, including cotton and organic cotton bags, showed that plastic has a smaller production footprint than these other materials across several environmental and human toxicity indicators. Organic cotton is comparable in some ways to bamboo as a natural fibre, so this study is worth noting
Waste Management – pure or natural bamboo that is not treated with any synthetic additives is usually biodegradable, so can be placed in a green organics bin in some locations. Some plastics are recyclable, but plastic in general in some countries has a low recycling rate.
Pollution – a potential source of pollution from bamboo can come from the production process, with the chemicals used to extract bamboo fibres for bamboo rayon. Waste water and other toxic substances can be discharged during this process. For plastic, plastic pollution from litter, micro plastics and inadequately disposed of plastic are significant issues. Leaching of chemicals from plastic may also be a pollution issue, as well as plastic accumulating organic pollutants in the environment
Impact On Humans – one concern that is often raised with plastic is the impact it can have on humans via leaching of BPA and other chemicals, with the use of drink bottles in particular. Humans also ingest micro plastics via breathing, and from the water and food supply, but it’s unclear how much of an impact this has on us yet
Impact On Wildlife – plastic in the environment can cause ingestion and entanglement issues for wildlife, particularly marine life.
Examples Of Products & Items Where Bamboo & Plastic Are Used
Bags – one life cycle assessment report showed plastic bags coming out ahead of natural fibre bags like organic cotton bags in several environmental indicators. This could be an important comparison for bamboo bags. Re-use is the key for natural fibre bags to average out their production footprint
Toothbrushes – on bamboo toothbrushes, the nylon bristles still have to be removed if you want to recycle the bamboo shaft in some way (possibly via organic waste bins)
Clothing & Other Textiles – polyester is a thermoplastic fibre, which is used for clothing and textiles, whilst bamboo rayon and bamboo fibres are also used for clothing and textiles. Interestingly, plastic fibres from clothing and textiles is one of the major sources of microplastics in our environment and water supply
Furniture – bamboo vs plastic furniture. Interestingly, inhalation of microplastics from plastic furniture and textiles is one way that microplastics get inside humans
There are several other examples too. Plastic vs bamboo packaging is one such example.
The Sustainability Of Plastic
Read more specifically about the sustainability of plastic in this guide.
The Sustainability Of Bamboo
Read more specifically about the sustainability of bamboo in this guide.
Other Factors To Consider
Just as there is different types of plastic, bamboo can come from different sources and production processes. Each different source of bamboo can have a different sustainability footprint (depending on how it’s grown, fibres are processed, etc.)
The waste management systems, facilities and technology in a given country or State make a difference to the sustainability not just of different materials, but different waste items and products (because of how different waste materials and items are processed among the different disposal options at different rates)
How long a bamboo product or item lasts, or how many times it can be used/re-used before being thrown out, impacts it’s sustainability footprint