The Benefits of Bamboo, and the Truth About Cotton

After I graduated from college and started living completely on my own, I started to realize just how important it is to do what we can to help the environment through eco-friendly living.  At the same time, I also started to realize how difficult it can be to make eco-friendly choices.  However, one of my favorite ways that I found to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle was by sleeping with bamboo sheets on my bed rather than cotton.  It was after researching the cotton industry that I realized I needed to find an alternative to the cotton sheets I’d been sleeping on ever since I could remember.

The Cotton Industry and its Drawbacks

Cotton Bolls

When I started my research on the cotton industry, I was astounded at the data I found.  It turns out that to make just one cotton t-shirt, farmers need as much water as one single person drinks over a three year period.  Additionally, more than 25% of insecticides worldwide are used on cotton, which is a crop that is grown on a measly 3% of the world’s farmland.  More than 12% of the world’s pesticides are also used on cotton.

In addition, because cotton requires so much water, much of the runoff includes the pesticides and insecticides used to grow the crop, which in turn pollutes the water sources nearby, and kills off fish, birds and other animals.  The state of California requires pesticide use reports to be filed each year.  Scientists did research and found that 15 chemicals were present in 77% of the pesticides used statewide – and these chemicals were among the most dangerous in the world.  Seven of the chemicals caused cancer, 8 caused tumors, 5 caused mutations, and 12 caused birth defects in humans.  13 of the chemicals were toxic to birds and fish.

An Alternative to Cotton – Bamboo

bamboo forest path

After finding all of this out about cotton, my outlook on the world seemed rather bleak, especially since cotton is such a widely used crop.  However, I felt significantly more optimistic when I started to research an alternative to cotton – bamboo.

Bamboo often seems foreign to those of us living in the west, since it is a grass that originates and is grown mostly in the Far East.  However, bamboo is one of the most unique plants on Earth, and is a highly renewable resource on top of that.  Unlike cotton, bamboo requires relatively little water, and in the places where it grows naturally, no irrigation and no fertilizers are needed to help it grow.  This is quite the contrast to the growth of cotton.

Additionally, bamboo is a woody grass – which means that it can be harvested as lumber, or as a fiber that can be used for textiles.  And unlike trees, bamboo culms reach maturity in anywhere from 1-7 years (depending on the species).  Conversely, most trees reach maturity in anywhere from 20-70 years.

The Key to a Better World

However, bamboo’s most appealing quality is its negative carbon footprint.  Bamboo has a negative carbon footprint because it produces so much oxygen.  A forest of bamboo will produce up to 35% more oxygen than a grove of trees the same size.  One scientist even went so far as to speculate that if we planted a lot more bamboo, we could end global warming in just six years.

After learning all of this, I determined that one of the ways that I could become more eco-friendly was to choose bamboo products and textiles over cotton ones whenever possible.  I have since bought bamboo shirts, bamboo furniture, and my personal favorite, bamboo sheets and blankets.  The best part of it all is that the bamboo fabric is actually even softer than cotton fabric, so I don’t feel like I’m downgrading – I actually feel like I’m upgrading.  I am hopeful that as more people become aware of the benefits of bamboo, that we can move toward not only a more eco-friendly market, but toward a higher quality market as well.