Over the centuries bamboo has been used to make everything from paper and weapons to charcoal and food. Its seemingly endless list of uses hides the fact that huge monoculture plantations are hurting the environment.
Is it a tree?
Bamboo is not a tree, but an evergreen grass that is usually hollow. There are more than 1,400 varieties of the plant which comes in all different sizes — from knee-high to over 30 meters (100 feet). Generally, bamboo is found in a band around the Earth that includes most of South America, and much of Africa and Southeast Asia. It usually survives best in warm, moist climates.
Building with bamboo
Many varieties of bamboo shoot up extremely fast. This may be a boon for growers, but once the plant establishes itself, it can be nearly impossible to get rid of it. In some places varieties of bamboo are also considered an invasive species. Nonetheless, it is a popular construction material that has been used for centuries — especially in Asia — because of its strength and flexibility.
Cooking with bamboo
One thing bamboo has going for it, is its versatility. Besides being used for cooking utensils, it can be made into flooring, toothbrushes, furniture, paper, textile additives, sunglasses... and can be eaten too. These manifold uses have encouraged an increasing number of producers in China to cut down natural mixed forests and plant huge bamboo monoculture plantations that threaten biodiversity.
Soaking it up
Bamboo might grow at a rapid rate, but it also needs a lot of water. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on where it is grown. In Kenya along the Upper Tana River basin, smallholders have planted bamboo to reduce sediment flowing into the water and stabilize the land along the banks. As an added bonus its root system holds the soil together and acts like a water filter.
Bamboo by the cup
A recent fad in things bamboo is reusable coffee cups. But earlier this year a German consumer group found potentially dangerous chemicals in all of the 12 bamboo cups they tested. Additionally, they noted that the "bamboo" in these cups is in reality ground up fibers that are glued together. The glue contained formaldehyde and melamine. And none of the cups were actually biodegradable.
Share and share alike
Famously, bamboo is the favorite food of giant pandas, who eat almost nothing else. But chimpanzees, gorillas and even us humans have also been known to partake. Pickled, cooked or boiled bamboo shoots are a staple in large parts of the world. The leaves can be used to wrap steamed dumplings or rice amd the hollow stalks can are sometimes used as a cooking device.
Taking a longer view
Whether its used for chopsticks, straws, toothbrushes, utensils, skyscraper scaffolding or to prevent erosion, bamboo has become a part of people's lives all over the world. But as its popularity grows — and last year the market for bamboo was nearly $69 billion (€62 billion) — it is set to have a continuing impact on nature :/