Bamboo paper is attracting the attention of companies and individuals looking for eco-friendly printing and sustainability. Despite the digital revolution, the demand for paper is growing globally and surpassed 472 million tons in 2016. Of all the industrial wood traded globally, 40% is used by the pulp and paper industry. Understandably, consumers have concerns about wood supply and sustainability, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. At BambooInk, we reduce waste, recycle, use post-consumer recycled papers, and look for high-quality alternatives, including tree-free papers like bamboo.
What is tree-free paper?
For centuries, people have made paper from materials other than wood pulp. Before the 19th century, paper in the United States was produced almost exclusively from textile waste. During the 18th century, paper demand exploded for books, magazines, newspapers, and packaging materials. It led to a rag shortage in 1799. The shortage was so severe after the Civil War that reportedly a mill owner in Maine resorted to importing shiploads of mummies from Egypt. He put their wrappings and papyrus fillings into the beaters to make his mill’s paper pulp. An alternative to these extreme measures had to be found.
Wood pulp came to the rescue. Industrial practices and chemical processes improved in the 19th century and allowed wood to meet the growing paper demand. The first newspaper in the United States to be printed on wood-pulp paper was the Boston Weekly Journal on January 14, 1863. But consumers complained about the poor quality of wood-pulp paper until technology improved and wood became the dominant paper fiber by later that century. At the start of the 21st century, trees account for 90% of the world’s fiber utilization.
Today the paper industry is again responding to demand and public interest by using tree-free fibers. Tree-free papers are made of fibers from several sources:
- Agricultural residues (e.g. sugarcane bagasse, husks, straw)
- Wastes from textiles and rope (e.g. cotton linters)
- Fiber crops (e.g. bamboo, hemp, kenaf, flax)
Is bamboo paper environmentally friendly?
As with any eco-friendly claims, there are many variables to consider. Bamboo is an exceptional renewable resource. Responsible plantation and mill management can allow bamboo to be a sustainable alternative to wood pulp.
Bamboo is a grass that can grow a meter per day. Fast growth allows some species of bamboo to reach maturity in three years; by comparison, forests can take a century to grow back after logging. Mature bamboo crops can be harvested annually, and because it’s a grass, bamboo stumps sprout new growth, eliminating the need to replant. It’s estimated that 25,000 acres of bamboo can provide 1,000,000 tons of raw fiber per year.
Reduce Pesticides and Fertilizers
Many species of bamboo don’t succumb to virulent pests. As a result, fewer pesticides are needed. While there are concerns that monoculture could lead to an increase in harmful insects and a need for pesticide, intergovernmental organizations and corporations are trying to minimize this risk by using companion and cover crops.
Reduce Greenhouse Gases
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere. Concentrations of these gases can increase because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, and contribute to climate change. Bamboo generates oxygen and increases the absorption–or sequestering–of carbon dioxide. Some species of bamboo are reported to be more efficient at producing oxygen and sequestering carbon than timber. Harvesting bamboo traps carbon. Bamboo culms–the poles–live approximately a decade, and as they decay, they release carbon back into the atmosphere. Harvesting bamboo before it begins to decay can store carbon in the culms for longer periods. The root system then sprouts new shoots that will sequester more carbon.
Of course, fossil fuels burned in the manufacture and shipping of bamboo can reduce gains. These concerns will be addressed later in the article.
Reduce Water Usage
Bamboo requires less water per acre than other alternatives. This is important for sustainable cultivation, especially in areas impacted by droughts.
Fight Deforestation, Improve Soil Quality, and Increase Biodiversity
When discussing if bamboo is eco-friendly, we must consider the land required to grow bamboo. If trees are cut to make way for cropland, deforestation increases. Deforestation can spark environmental decline as soils dry, erode, and become barren. In addition, there’s concern that forests cleared for cultivation of a single crop would destroy habitat and limit biodiversity. Responsible agricultural practices address these concerns.
Many large global growers are committed to deforestation-free fiber grown on marginal land that’s already depleted, and bamboo planting in these regions intends to restore soil, prevent erosion, and improve the water table.
It sounds almost too good to be true, right? Not so, say groups like the International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), which is an intergovernmental organization of 43 member states that “promotes the use of bamboo and rattan for environmentally sustainable development and green growth.” Since bamboo requires few nutrients from the soil, it can grow in areas inhospitable to other plants. Its fast growth develops a strong root system quickly, holding the soil in place and preventing erosion. Most bamboo species drop leaves throughout the year, creating a natural compost on the forest floor that adds nutrients to the soil. In areas like Allahabad, India, INBAR’s work cultivating bamboo added six to eight inches of humus to soil per year, and over a period of several years tuned degraded soil into rich farmland. Roots also leach heavy metals from the soil and draw water closer to the surface, raising the water table.
When we think of bamboo, pandas often come to mind, but don’t forget about primates like mountain gorillas, bale monkeys, and greater bamboo lemurs that use bamboo as a source of nutrition and habitat. INBAR believes that sustainably managing and utilizing bamboo as a crop will allow local communities to meet their needs without putting more pressures on virgin primate habitats. INBAR and other organizations are working with peoples around the world to develop management systems that protect biodiversity without compromising productivity that’s important to local economies.
Positive Impact on Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples
A sustainable process also considers local communities and the impact on indigenous peoples’ food, health, economy, and quality of life.
Bamboo is a native species in the tropics and subtropics, regions with some of the world’s poorest communities. If bamboo is responsibly managed, it uses degraded land and doesn’t compete with food crops; therefore, it doesn’t impact food security. Tina Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times, states that barren land caused by deforestation is a major reason for Ethiopia’s periodic famines. Improving soil quality through planting bamboo could restore some farmland, provide income, and not take away from valuable lands required for food.
International organizations are using bamboo to improve the health and safety of local peoples. In deforested regions, women might travel long distances for firewood, a grueling and sometimes dangerous journey. INBAR encourages local communities to use a portion of the bamboo crop for fuel, eliminating the need for these treks. The roots of a bamboo plant can hold up to six cubic feet of soil, which prevents mudslides and their devastating consequences.
Bamboo plantations are harvested annually so jobs are permanent in regions that need economic security. While bamboo is fighting deforestation and improving soils in India, Ethiopia, and other regions, it also provides income for local peoples. But it’s not just the tropics and subtropics that benefit from bamboo. Cropland and manufacturing facilities in the United States promise to bring income to local communities in the Southeast.
INBAR and groups like them believe responsibly managed bamboo fields could help achieve international goals for health, sustainability, and climate.
While the bamboo plant is a remarkable renewable resource, the sustainability of bamboo paper is also dependent on the process that turns culm into a consumer product.
Some companies in the bamboo textile industry have come under fire for “greenwashing” the benefits of bamboo because their messaging ignored the chemical processes required to break bamboo into fibers usable in textiles. We must consider the chemicals used in process, the byproducts of production, water usage, waste, and energy usage. Today, many businesses are focusing on cleaner manufacturing, moving toward zero waste, and lowering energy and water usage.
Transportation also impacts a fiber’s environmental footprint. If the raw material has to be transported long distances to be manufactured and then the paper has to travel for use, it burns more fossil fuels, releasing greenhouse gases. Some large-scale manufacturers are locating mills closer to bamboo plantations around the world. Manufacturers in the United States are focusing here in the Southeast, a region where two species of bamboo should flourish, bringing crops and jobs to Alabama’s Black Belt. A manufacturing plant has been built in nearby Greene County, creating minimal distance from farm to factory. As this industry emerges, the United States will no longer just be the world’s largest importer of bamboo, we’ll also be a significant producer.
Bamboo Paper vs Tree Paper
We’re often asked how paper made from bamboo compares to paper made from wood pulp. Here’s how they stack up for sustainability certifications, quality, and recyclability.
Bamboo growers are now looking to third-party certifications that monitor sustainable practices. These certifications overlap with responsible timber harvesting.
- Rainforest Alliance certifications signify deforestation free
- Forest Stewardship Council certifications indicate responsible forestry
- Verified Carbon Standard verification process is a voluntary program to reduce greenhouse gases
- Climate, Community, Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) certification comes from a partnership of leading international NGOs with a mission to stimulate and promote land management activities that credibly mitigate global climate change, improve the well-being and reduce the poverty of local communities, and conserve biodiversity
Bamboo paper is a clean sheet with no blemishes. It can be acid free and archival quality. It’s available in various paper weights and is as versatile as other papers. It’s been a lovely addition to our own BambooInk materials.
“Over the last 25 years we’ve dedicated our company to sourcing and creating the very best fine art papers the world has to offer. In creating our bamboo paper we used our resources and experience to develop something in keeping with the rest of our products–something not just unique but something that performs up to our customers’ high standards.”
-Joshua Levine, Legion Paper CEO
Bamboo paper is recyclable. Check with your local recycling center if you have questions.
BambooInk on Bamboo Paper
For our business cards, pictured above, we used Legion Bamboo, 120lb cover. It’s made from 90% bamboo and 10% cotton, both renewable tree-free fibers, and it’s milled in the United States. Cotton is added to soften the bamboo fibers, giving the paper a supple texture. The end result is elegant and durable. It’s also as versatile and receptive to deep colors as other papers. We’re raving about it.
We’re constantly expanding our knowledge of sustainable practices, and we invite you to join us. We’re here to help you decide what paper is right for your needs. Contact us today.
Interested in monthly printing tips and quarterly discounts delivered to your inbox? Let us know below.