Bamboo is one of the most versatile plants on earth. You can grow it, eat it, wear it, build with it and even make beer with it, as a brewing company in Canada has done. But in China and Korea bamboo has already been used for liquor for centuries. In Korea the leaves are used in Daeipsul, a medicinal folk wine, and in China, Zhuyeing is an ancient wine distilled from bamboo leaves and rice.
Once only associated with China, where half of the world’s crop still grows, bamboo is now known to grow all over the world, from South America to Australia and from the USA to the Himalayas. This elegant plant, a member of the grass family, is stronger than steel and grows up to more than 90 feet tall in some conditions. The great bamboo forests of China, known as the Bamboo Sea, are featured in many Asian movies.
Bamboo fabric is one of the latest entrants to the international fashion scene, and is used for high-end fashion as well as t-shirts, towels, curtains and even underwear. But bamboo cannot simply be spun into yarn like cotton or wool. It is made into rayon by breaking down the tough fibres with chemicals. Yet like those more familiar sources, it can still be processed into the finest fabric.
Bamboo is also the most sustainable material when it comes to tougher applications like construction. UNESCO estimates that just 70 hectares of bamboo can produce 1000 houses, compared to stripping a forest of its timber. In Hong Kong, it is used for scaffolding, which is stronger and cheaper than metal, and in India and China, bamboo is used for making roads and bridges.
Most kitchens have a bamboo cutting board or two, but keen and green cooks can stock their kitchen with sustainable bamboo in many ways including crockery and cutlery. It has many uses in daily life, from padding disposable diapers and producing waste-free paper goods, to making furniture and musical instruments. It could be answer to the unsustainable use of other dwindling resources, especially trees.
There is also a possibility of using cheap, abundant bamboo to produce biofuel. The process is difficult and expensive, but in February 2015 Science Magazine reported that researchers had used a bacterium called Zymomonas mobilis to ferment woody plant matter and create fuel more efficiently. So, bamboo biofuel is certainly on the horizon.
Could bamboo be the major sustainable crop of the future? It certainly ticks all the boxes. It grows like a weed all over the world, and it is the fastest growing plant in the world with one species growing up to a meter a day. Bamboo has virtually no limit to its versatility. It takes decades to produce a forest of trees, but only weeks to replace a depleted forest of bamboo.
In 2016 the bamboo industry was worth $60 billion per year, with U.N. Secretary Ban Ki Moon helping to show off a bamboo bicycle made by Evelyn Ohenewaa of Ghana. Once regarded as a pest in the West because of its rampant growth habits in suburbia, bamboo may be the savior of us all.