A Look Behind
Let’s think of a bamboo product — flooring, toothpicks, skewers, chopstick, mats, furniture, roofing, clothing, beer (yes, beer), etc. Now, let’s explore its origins.
Many (though not all) of the products consumed by millions of people every day, around the world, come from forests in Africa, Asia, and South America. North America is now also coming on-line as a new player in the world bamboo market.
While a few species of bamboo are preferred for most of what is produced by large-scale, global-export industries (like Phyllostachys Edulis in China or Guadua Angustifolia in Columbia), many more are used for smaller, more localized production.
All bamboo products originate from bamboo culms, grown by farmers and foresters in many countries across the “bamboo belt”, to eventually become the material for what is an innovative, if not fascinating, the process of transformation.
The global “bamboo belt”, reaching approximately 1000 miles above and below the equator.
The following slides depict stages of a “supply chain”, from Forest – to Factory – to Fulfillment (the three F’s). Various products can emerge from common steps of the process.
Using specific techniques and machinery, a properly implemented processing regime allows nothing to go to waste — all parts of a bamboo culm are utilized for optimal efficiency and benefit.
In China, Zhu & Wei (2006) usefully depicted this potential across a model industry supply chain.
(The graphic below is based on their model).
Bamboo can be grown organically, without any use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides (though, in some places, chemical fertilizers are used to artificially boost production). Organic fertilizer may be used to adequately feed the managed bamboo stand. Understory crops, like mushrooms, shade-loving vegetables, and free-ranging chickens, can provide useful soil management benefits while adding to the farmer’s portfolio of marketable products. Rice husks are sometimes applied as a “covering method” to provide warming soil insulation against cold winter and spring temperatures. As a result, tasty bamboo shoots, like those of p. Praecox, can emerge twice per year, providing farmers with more profitable products to sell.
Bamboo stands (or groves) can be harvested at shorter time sequences than trees, with only one-third of an acre harvested at a time (to allow for remaining standing bamboo to continue harvesting nutrients for next-generation growth). For example, culms harvested for use in the manufacturing of bamboo flooring can be gleaned every 6 years (standing to allow the culms to harden), while softwood trees mature at 15-25 years, and hardwoods maturing over even longer periods. As a result, bamboos are excellent resources to cultivate where tree forests are prone to violent weather events (like tornadoes or hurricanes) and expensive loss. A damaged or broken culm can be replaced with new growth the following year (making bamboo a “durable investment”), where damaged or fallen trees could take decades to return. Tree crops and bamboo crops make for a powerful, allied fiber stream. Harvesting shoots removes what would have been culms for harvest. Market opportunities (and species best suited for various industries) inform decisions about when to harvest, and for what application.
Typically, in China and elsewhere, farmers (or contracted workers) pre-process their cut bamboo to facilitate easier shipping and handling to the factory. This usually involves de-branching so that they (the branches) can be bundled for specific uses. The branch-less 40 to 60-foot long culms (sometimes longer) are then loaded onto trucks for transport to a factory for further processing.
On arrival to the factory (or an additional pre-processing facility), the long culms undergo further preparation for specific product applications. Cutting to lengths and sorting by sections (i.e. base, middle section, top sections, etc.) eventually give way to acts of splitting, planing (to remove hard culm nodes), sanding (to remove razor-sharp edges), and refinement (at times) into long strands for weaving, or sticks for skewers, toothpicks, or ribs for umbrellas (both big and small — like those in a cocktail drink). Nothing is wasted or left unused — for example, sawdust is collected for either fuel or additional products.
After completing steps to prepare the culm for specific applications, the product creation process takes over and, according to specific production requirements, further prepares the culms by — cutting, bending, stripping, burning, bundling, sanding, gluing, stitching, compressing, etc. After cutting, the culms protective silica skin has been compromised and the softer, inner pith is vulnerable to fungus and discoloration. To retard this unsightly effect, the bamboo is bathed in boiling hydrogen peroxide (non-toxic and often heated with bamboo sawdust fuel). That’s why your toothpicks and skewers are not blemished with mold. After their baths, myriad products result. The following images depict various stages of producing bamboo shoots for canning, bamboo flooring, crafts, basketry, mats, and furniture.
(Mats & Brooms)
These are only a few of the many bamboo products made for local, regional, and international markets. As innovations continue to occur, so too will the stories of bamboo applications — and what happens “behind the scenes”
About Bamboo Biochar:
Biochar is a form of high-quality charcoal that is created by heating organic waste at high temperatures without the use of oxygen. It can endure in soil for thousands of years, giving it the potential to help mitigate climate change via carbon sequestration. Among its many benefits, biochar produces clean energy, builds healthy, supported soils and increases fertility, reduces the risk of water table contamination, and raises agricultural productivity.
Biochar is often associated with Terra Preta or the rich “black soils” of Amazonia. Utilizing simple (appropriate) stove technologies, biomass (including bamboo — which is excellent for making quality biochar!) can be quickly transformed into a porous by-product (using little energy and emitting little smoke and emissions), capable of holding moisture, nutrients, bacteria — like safe shelter for soil life.
Therefore, biochar can be and is widely recognized as an excellent complement to conventional composting and organic soil-building processes, where the marriage of durable soil structural improvements and rich nutrient cycling combine to form a win-win scenario. Quality biochar and compost regimes can provide effective, balanced, and timely soil restoration — together.
Recent enthusiasm for utilizing biochar has emerged around the world, especially as a response to both climate change impacts and food insecurity. Connecting biochar production with sustainable bamboo cultivation unites two excellent resources for addressing these and other issues.
To learn more, check the links, documents, and films below. Enjoy!
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