Forests purify our air and water, make a home for wildlife, supply vital resources, and provide jobs for over 50 million people around the world. Forests can even act as a ‘carbon sink,’ literally soaking up carbon dioxide before it can wreak havoc on our atmosphere. This means that forests have the power to reverse climate change. However, forests are being degraded and destroyed on a massive scale around the globe. The world has already lost ⅓ of our forests– the size of the entire USA- in the last century alone. In 2019, the tropics lost the amount of 30 soccer fields of trees every minute. 

The concrete, steel, and logging industries- and thus the construction industry- are major contributors to this deforestation. Because of this, governments and environmentalists have been in search of more sustainable construction materials. Luckily, there is a material that human beings have been using for over 5,000 years that could be a solution: bamboo.

Here are some ways bamboo construction materials might benefit sustainable construction and some of the challenges it may create. 

Benefits and Challenges of Bamboo

Benefits

  • Bamboo is an incredibly fast-growing grass and requires 12 times less land than wood. This means that bamboo farms would take up much less space than traditional logs, saving vital forest areas. 
  • Bamboo can also regenerate its own roots meaning that after it is harvested, it does not need to be replanted. 
  • It is a powerful carbon sink. Bamboo is one of the fastest carbon sequesters on earth and can quickly take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
  • It is highly durable, water and fire resistant, while still being flexible and elastic. 
  • Bamboo is pest and termite resistant.
  • It is good for the economy. Some 60% of the value of bamboo production goes straight back to the farmers who grow it. This can be a huge benefit for rural economies.  

Challenges

  • It cannot be sustainably farmed on an appropriate scale in North America and Europe. This means we would have to rely on and import the material from other countries which may not live up to our environmental standards.
  • For some products like textiles, bamboo must be processed with harsh chemicals and solvents that are bad for the environment.
  • There are concerns that rising incentives to farm bamboo could lead to more forest destruction and endanger native ecosystems.

Luckily, many of the challenges that bamboo presents are outweighed by its benefits. Because bamboo is so fast growing and self-regenerates, its crop is much less harmful than traditional timber. When you cut the stalk of bamboo, it is able to grow back without being replanted. Farmers can easily reuse the same land after harvesting in a fraction of the time it takes to regrow timber. While timber takes decades to reach maturity, bamboo is fully grown in only a few years. In terms of carbon emissions, transporting bamboo from Asia to California is roughly equivalent to shipping timber across the US. With careful management and manufacturing, bamboo has the potential to reverse deforestation. But, can it be realistically used as a construction material?

Is bamboo the future of sustainable construction?

Certain species of bamboo are nearly as strong as steel while being much more lightweight and flexible. Bamboo can thus be used for a variety of construction materials. In fact, bamboo is already used in floors, furniture, and some elements of buildings- even the scaffolding on skyscrapers. However, to be a real solution to deforestation, bamboo has to be able to replace traditional structural materials

While live and treated bamboo is durable, natural, harvested bamboo easily decays with time. Because of this, we still don’t know whether  bamboo can be safely used for structural elements of larger construction projects. However, there is a growing body of research into this very topic. Many start-up companies as well as environmental researchers are working to create a hybrid bamboo material that can replace steel entirely and be widely regulated and commercialized. 

If they succeed, bamboo construction materials could be a real solution to cutting carbon emissions, saving the world’s forests, bolstering the economy and creating jobs. With more research, structures could soon be created using primarily bamboo.

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