Industrialists eye potential of bamboo as earth-saving alternative to timber

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 December, 2009, 12:00am

It is the poor man's timber, but it could help protect the earth from climate change.

Bamboo, a building material used for thousands of years, is gaining attention for its potential to arrest the runaway destruction of forests due to its almost miraculous replenishment rate.

Enthusiasts foresee vast forests of the world's largest grass replacing timber - saving trees and helping arrest the release of carbon dioxide through 'reckless' deforestation.

It has even piqued the interest of Hong Kong's industrialists.

The Federation of Hong Kong Industries signed a memorandum of co-operation in October with the State Forestry Administration's International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, and its International Centre for Bamboo and Rattan.

Under the pact, the federation pledged to help the mainland formulate national and international standards for bamboo processing and products ranging from furniture to food, building materials, paper and even clothing.

It also vowed to take the lead in speeding up the modernisation of the bamboo industry, which is not yet technologically sophisticated enough for large-scale production.

The federation has called on its members to look for investment opportunities on the mainland to turn the versatile and abundant plant into manufactured products for export.

The federation's Martin Tam Tin-fong, who keenly supports the promotion of bamboo, used the term 'movement' to describe efforts being made worldwide to realise the plant's potential.

'It can become a revolution through which timber will gradually be replaced,' said Tam, who is the federation's mainland affairs and building materials committee chairman, and has visited a number of mainland bamboo forests.

'The increasing price of timber and the reckless deforestation will inevitably prompt others to look for alternative materials, and bamboo is clearly an answer to that,' he said.

Bamboo accounted for just 1 per cent of the world's forests and boosting its coverage would make a significant contribution to reducing the release of carbon dioxide caused by deforestation, Tam said.

Bamboo could also grow extremely fast, with some species growing one metre a day. It could also reach full height in just four months, he said. Since bamboo declines after reaching maturity, harvesting is regarded as a necessary measure to allow new shoots to grow.

William Yu Yuen-ping, head of WWF Hong Kong's climate programme, said while bamboo was definitely a potential solution, its future would depend on the economics of replacing timber.

However, bamboo might still face problems when competing with conventional materials. Not only are its size and texture different from timber, it is too often perceived as being fit only for handicraft-making, and sophisticated manufacturing on an industrial scale is uncommon.

With more than 400 species and 4.2 million hectares of bamboo forest, Tam said China should be well positioned to lead the 'movement'. Last year, the average per hectare yield of bamboo on the mainland hit 25 tonnes, a third of the world's production.

But the lack of co-operation among local bamboo growing regions has prevented the formulation of a unified and credible product standard that would give consumers confidence, Tam added.

Another issue was cultural bias against the material. 'It is often regarded as a poor man's timber and this perception is deep-rooted in Chinese culture. That is something that has to be reversed if bamboo is to gain more importance.'

Professor Lam Yanta, from Polytechnic University's School of Design, has written several research papers on the use of bamboo and agrees that image could be one problem facing the wider application of bamboo.

But he said many designers steered clear of bamboo not because they were biased, but because they did not know enough about its uses.

Lam said that the first step in modernising the bamboo industry should be ensuring the plants were properly grown and harvested to avoid soil erosion and environmental degradation.

'It might grow fast, but it should not be abused. There should be good management practice in place for bamboo cultivation,' he said.

Lam said the design, manufacture and disposal of bamboo products should also be taken into account to prevent toxins or extra waste being generated in the production and consumption processes.

Green revolution

Bamboo's speedy growth rate could make it the answer to the world's deforestation problem

The number of hectares of bamboo forest on the mainland is: 4.2m