A Look at the Environmental Effect Bamboo Rayon Fabric

Views assessing the eco-friendly value of bamboo rayon versus alternative or, in this case, more mainstream resources, vary widely.  Contention arises as industries compete for market share.  Because of the specialization of industrial equipment, most factories cannot easily convert to current popular fabric types, so the desire to “defend your brand” maintains a strong sentiment.

In the fabric world, the cultural attachment to cotton, (at least in the United States) stems from a rich history of cotton harvesting.  The United States has been the world leader in cotton for most of the 20th Century, and has had a dedicated involvement in the industry since the country’s inception.  Currently, the U.S. government annually subsidizes cotton grown by farmers so heavily that it offsets the world market price.  The United States currently pays off Brazilian farmers in the amount of $147+ million every year so that they do not sue over global cotton market manipulation.

As the world modernizes and as the global population skyrockets, there is a great need for alternative and rapidly renewable resources.  I hope readers realize that the way life is operated at the moment will not provide sufficiently for the near future.  National Geographic calls deforestation a modern day plague, with forest areas of land the size of Panama being lost to deforestation every year.  Cotton, covering only 2.4% of the world’s crop land, uses over 24% of the world’s insecticides.  The longevity associated with traditional tree forests, and the chemical usage that bombards just the growth phase of cotton raises large issues pertaining to our current way of life.

But bamboo offers a glimmer of hope – this may not be widely realized.  Bamboo, as the fastest growing plant on earth, offers a valid substitute for timber.  This article will focus more on bamboo as a fabric.

The main accusation against bamboo as a fabric comes from a pronouncement by the FTC declaring bamboo as void of any original natural properties, and being the product of high polluting emissions.  The main issue with these statements is that they are based on the analysis of a generalized rayon process instead of studying the specific chemical reactions involved in the bamboo rayon chemical process.  However, the EPA handbook on rayon goes on to say:rayon-production

“Although the manufacturing process further purifies the cellulose, alters the physical form of the fiber, and modifies the molecular orientation within the fiber and its degree of polymerization, the product is essentially the same chemical as the raw material.[1]” (emphasis added)

Well how does bamboo rayon fabric stack up against cotton?  The same handbook notes that “rayon retained many of the same physical properties as cotton, such as high moisture absorption and subsequent swelling of the fibers.”  The highly desirable feature of bamboo fabric is the extremely soft hand (feel).  That it may be extremely eco-friendly would only further develop bamboo as a desirable fabric.  As the quote notes above, many of the other physical properties, durability, etc., are similar to that of cotton.

Chemical Use in Production

The fact is, that between the two fabrics, a lot of chemicals are used.  Both are exposed to high levels of strong chemicals.  In comparing the two in terms of chemical usage, a lot of unfair positions are taken.  Many proponents of cotton will cite unethical practices that are uncommon in the bamboo industry, such as, cutting down forests to plant bamboo, and dumping chemicals baths without treating them.  They then proceed to defend cotton’s environmental effect by looking at organic cotton (as if it speaks for the whole industry).

The same unfair tactics have come from bamboo.  Many people have cited near miraculous properties to the fabric that may not actually exist.

Cotton is the recipient of many harsh chemicals; the primary polluting source for the cotton textile being wastewater.  For a full list of chemicals used and lost in the production process, review pages 40 – 63 of the EPA’s cotton textiles handbook[2].  Needless to say, that list is very long.  With waste water being the source of pollution, there is a lot of negative effects that can come from its release.  Even when treated, waste water can do a great deal of harm to the local water table, soil, plant life, and animal life.

Bamboo looks to its air emissions as its primary polluting source.  Over 75 percent of pollutants from bamboo rayon production come from air emissions.  There number one pollutant being carbon disulfide.  Carbon disulfide is a naturally occurring chemical that is released in the hundreds of millions of pounds every year from the oceans, and even more from volcanoes.  The process necessary to catch and recycle the carbon disulfide (which is a lucrative operation) is quite expensive.  Many factories do not have the $23 million it takes to set up the complex retrieval system.  However, the last study I know of that directly sought to come up with a solution to this very problem happened back in 1992.  Bamboo fabric and rayon have not been the most popular in the United States and they have not been studied much in academic circles.  If the great minds of the world would seek to devise a cost effective way for factories to capture and recycle this compound, then the bamboo rayon process would be 100% eco-friendly – and without blemish.

As a side note: the same caustic soda that so many people use as a scary, chemical sounding name, is used in both bamboo fabric and cotton.  It is the same chemical used in your average soap, lye, and is neutralized into salt water during the bamboo viscose process.  It poses no real threat.

Conclusions

People say that bamboo can make the softest sheets in the world, but it is also more eco-friendly than its competition.  When considering bamboo rayon as an eco-friendly fabric most people think strictly chemicals.  But many other factors should come into consideration.  People say that bamboo can make the softest sheets in the world, but it is also more eco-friendly than its competition. How many pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides are being used?  How renewable and sustainable is the resource?  How much oxygen does it replenish to the environment?

My final voice for bamboo as a fabric would mention these points.

-          Bamboo as a resource is one of the most sustainable and renewable plants in the world.

-          Its versatility will enable more farmers to stay in business.

-          If the demand goes up, it will provide many job opportunities for poor nations like Haiti, and Nicaragua.

-          Besides being useful as a product, bamboo benefits the environment, unlike cotton.

-          Since 75% of pollutants come from the emissions of the rayon process, increased interest in bamboo will encourage scientists to find a cost-effective means of combating such pollution.

-          In a world of ever increasing population, we need more resources that will provide for the entire world’s people.

 

 

 



[1] http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/publications/assistance/sectors/notebooks/resfibsn.pdf

[2] http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/publications/assistance/sectors/notebooks/textilsn.pdf

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