We compare some of the key factors involved in the production, usage and waste management of each.
Summary – Is Bamboo More Sustainable Than Plastic?
Breaking Down Which Might Be More Sustainable
Some sustainability points to consider with the two are:
1. Sourcing Materials
Bamboo comes from a renewable resource in the bamboo plant.
Conventional plastic on the other hand comes from non renewable fossil fuel feedstock … usually petroleum or natural gas
Bamboo might actually be more energy intensive and less environmentally friendly to produce than plastic
This can be the case 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 is whether it is bamboo rayon, and whether the process is closed loop or not.
Bamboo rayon may be processed with chemicals and solvents, and may have some level of environmental pollution if there are no processes in place to re-use or manage this viscose.
3. Biodegradability, & Eco Impact
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 the bamboo product reaches the end of it’s lifecycle
Plastic can also impact in the environment and wildlife in other ways when it becomes a pollutant as littered or mismanaged waste (especially in rivers and the ocean)
Overall, bamboo is more sustainable than plastic in some ways, but there are also some ways that it might not be
From a sustainability perspective, closed loop bamboo rayon, and natural bamboo fibres that are sustainably sourced, may 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 issues 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 natural 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
Ultimately, each company is going to source and make their plastic and bamboo products and packaging/items in different ways, and this will impact their sustainability.
Bamboo vs Plastic: Comparison
General Sustainability Of Each Material
Bamboo is sourced from renewable bamboo fibres
Some bamboo may also be sourced from sustainably grown bamboo forests that come with some type of certification
Plastic on the other hand comes from fossil fuel feed stock (crude oil and natural gas), and plastic is a synthetic material
When sourcing from recycled material vs virgin source material, bamboo may not be very sustainable in some ways
Some bamboo used in textiles and clothing may face issues with recycling and re-use – this is a common issue for textiles in general
Whilst not all plastic can be recycled, some plastic can be recycled and used as recycled content in new plastic products
Plastic might actually have less of an environmental impact to produce in some aspects compared to bamboo products
Although plastic uses energy to produce, and also uses additives and other inputs, bamboo needs land, water, energy and other resources to be grown, harvested, and processed
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
How waste is managed and re-used, repurposed or managed impacts sustainability
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.
But, not all bamboo can be recycled, such as our bamboo textile/fibre example used above in this guide.
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 sometimes 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
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
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.
Bamboo vs plastic furniture.
– Other Examples
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
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)
– There are different types of bamboo products with different sustainability footprints, and the same is true for plastic
– 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
– In addition to environmental indicators, there can be economic, human health and wild life/eco system indicators that impact sustainability.
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