Bamboo is fast becoming a popular material for the more environmentally conscious consumer. People can make simple daily choices from switching to a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one to wearing clothes made from bamboo fabric. Bamboo is regarded as highly sustainable in terms of its production – it naturally regenerates and grows insanely quickly. But what about when it comes to the end of its lifespan as a usable product? Will it persist forever in landfill or is bamboo biodegradable?
Firstly, a bit background – what is bamboo?
Due to the sheer size and strength of bamboo you may assume it is a tree. Believe it or not, it is actually classed as a grass! It is part of the Bambusoideae subfamily of the perennial evergreen grass family Poaceae (Gramineae). There are over 1,500 identified species in 111 different genera. They are a lot more diverse than most people think and grow on 5 different continents – Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Australia – in different climatic conditions.
So, is bamboo biodegradable?
If a material is biodegradable, it can be broken down naturally by microbes. Bamboo falls into this category – unlike plastics, for example, bamboo will not persist indefinitely. A bamboo toothbrush handle that ends up landfill, whilst not ideal, will biodegrade eventually. The length of time that it takes to biodegrade varies massively depending on the conditions. For example, conditions in landfill are far from optimal. Poor air flow and limited moisture levels mean it might take many years to breakdown.
Can bamboo be composted?
Composting is a great way to recycle waste. It prevents items going to landfill and is great for your garden too – what’s not to like? During the process organic matter (anything from your leftover food scraps to fallen autumn leaves) is broken down into a homemade, nutrient-rich material.
Bamboo is biodegradable so that mean it can be composted, right? Not exactly. Materials must be biodegradable to be composted. But not all biodegradable materials can be composted! The breakdown of all biodegradable material does not contribute to a nutrient-rich compost.
Luckily bamboo fits the bill and is a great material to throw on the compost pile. Bamboo leaves, stems and products made from bamboo can all be composted. If it is fresh bamboo then it will be classed as a ‘green’ nitrogen-rich component. Dried leaves or stalks will be classed as ‘brown’ materials – they are rich in carbon. Stick to the advised green to brown ratio as much as you can to ensure a health compost pile. If you are new to composting check out some of our FAQs here.
Can bamboo be vermicomposted?
Vermicomposting is similar to standard to composting – however, composting worms are used to speed things up! Although to some people this may be an odd concept, it works wonderfully – and bamboo works a treat in these worm compost bins too.
Bamboo composting caveats…
Bamboo will take a few months (to years) to decompose in your compost pile. Like other hard natural materials, such as crab shells, it vastly speeds up the process if you it is broken down into smaller pieces. This simply allows the microbes involved to have a larger surface area to work their magic on!
This also applies when adding bamboo to your vermicomposting bin – break it down into smaller bits. And don’t add too much – there is only so much that they can much their way through! It also helps if you place the bamboo in boiling water for a while beforehand. An hour should do the trick. It jumpstarts the process and makes the bamboo a bit more appealing and digestible for the worm. Gotta keep them happy!
It should be noted that bamboo often combined with other materials to make products. For example, although brand-dependent, bamboo toothbrush bristles are often made from nylon – a non-biodegradable material. These must be removed before adding the toothbrush to the pile – pliers do the trick nicely. Similarly, bamboo furniture can be coated in varnishes and suchlike which will impede the composting process. Sanding the synthetic materials off the furniture to leave the natural bamboo exposed would make it compostable.
The bottom line
Bamboo is a great material for many different products. It is one of the best materials available from a sustainability standpoint. Disposal after use is ideal too – your garden can benefit from the nutrient-rich compost you produce whilst avoiding landfill. And, worst case scenario – if it does end up in landfill, it will not outlive you by centuries!