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Green Gold

With the strong development momentum of bamboo as a renewable, low-carbon alternative to conventional material for infrastructure construction, will China lead a new green revolution?

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Picture bamboo, and you will probably have an image of a Giant Panda, munching on green stalks and slender leaves. Some might think of laundry waving on poles out of  
windows in Hong Kong’s high rises. But bamboo, which actually belongs to the grass family, can be used for so much more. And a group of people based in Beijing are trying to convince the world of its potential in helping to boost the green revolution as a substitute for a multitude of unsustainable products.  

Incredibly versatile, bamboo is commonly used for toothpicks, chopsticks, baskets, mats and tea trays – common products in Asian culture. But now the fast-growing perennial plant is being turned into more innovative products, including bamboo charcoal, furniture, flooring, homes, clothing, toothbrushes, wind turbine blades and even stiff drainage pipes. 

In late June, the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress 2018 (BARC 2018) organized by the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) and China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) took place in Beijing. During the three-day conference and exhibition, some 1,200 participants from almost 70 countries marveled at the multi-functional usages that bamboo and rattan can play as an environmentally friendly material.  

Globally, bamboo is widely used to build houses or is processed into charcoal. However, the importance of it as a low carbon resource has rarely been acknowledged until now.  
Poor Man’s Timber? 
“Bamboo is traditionally regarded as a ‘poor man’s timber’ in a number of countries – as a cheaper and less desirable alternative to wood,” Hans Friederich, Director-General of INBAR, an independent intergovernmental organization headquartered in Beijing, told NewsChina in early July: “Bamboo and rattan are truly green gold – they create jobs, help store carbon and can be used to make thousands of low-carbon products using a fast-growing, renewable material.” 
At BARC 2018, Pablo van der Lugt, an expert in using bamboo as a building material from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, gave a TED-style talk, in which he spoke of the huge potential of bamboo in terms of its speed of growth and effectiveness for carbon sequestration and climate mitigation. He called on policy makers to integrate bamboo in national action plans on climate change mitigation. After showing images of museums, houses and luxury villas made of bamboo, he described bamboo as an ideal material for building construction compared to non-renewable materials such as concrete, aluminum or PVC. 
In several countries, for example, China, the Philippines and Ghana, bamboo-made bikes have become fashionable. Charlie Du from Tus-Clean Energy Group said that scientific studies indicate that with proper treatment, bamboo as a material has better strength/density and stiffness/density than stainless steel, aluminum and birch, all commonly used in construction. “We have done demonstrations, and one bamboo-made bike with a 40 millimeter diameter bamboo pipe beam can be strong enough to carry over 10 adults,” Du said. “Bamboo material used in wind turbine blades can be twice as strong as birch used in blades.” Bamboo’s strength as a material can only be exhibited when it is stretched lengthways in a single direction, so it is well-suited for long, straight products, Du added. 

As a very popular natural resource for the Global South, many countries have taken action to promote bamboo as a new material for green development schemes. At the conference, Patricia  
Appeagyei, Vice-Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation in Ghana, said the country recognized bamboo as a complementary strategy for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Saibal Dasgupta from India’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change outlined possible pathways for India to use bamboo to combat climate change. Wang Chunfeng from China’s NFGA suggested that bamboo would become an important part of China’s new emissions trading scheme – making it a very important tool in the fight against climate change.  
In the developing world, bamboo and rattan provide a crucial source of income for millions of people, many of whom live in some of the poorest rural communities in the world. According to INBAR statistics, in China alone, almost 10 million people are employed in the bamboo sector. “INBAR has worked with the local government in Chishui [Guizhou Province,] on a number of projects to help restore degraded land and reforest areas using bamboo. The socioeconomic impacts were extraordinary,” Friederich said. “For example, one woman in Chishui, Mrs. Lu Huaying, started off making small carved bamboo handicrafts, and now runs an enterprise worth some two million yuan (US$0.3m) a year!” 
Bamboo Planes and Trains?
China enjoys the world richest bamboo resources, and according to the most recent national forestry resource statistics, by 2013, its overall bamboo forest coverage was more than six million hectares, about a third of the bamboo forest in the world.  

According to INBAR, bamboo products generated US$35.9 billion for China in 2017, with exports of US$1.96 billion. An article published in the Economist earlier this year said that “Chinese firms account for 90 percent of the international export market for laminated bamboo flooring.”  
The world is continuing to see innovations in ways to use bamboo and rattan, Friederich said. At BARC 2018, organizers showcased a wind turbine blade made from bamboo, as well as durable drainage pipes. “Because they grow quickly, are very flexible and light, these plants can provide a sustainable alternative to materials like cement, steel and plastic,” Friederich said. “Bamboo is also being tested for use as train [coaches] and plane fuselages and rattan is being trialed as a new material for artificial bone in humans.”  

Among all the technological innovations, a patented “bamboo winding technology,” a new bamboo composite, stands out. The material is made by processing the bamboo into a continuous strip of material. Ye Ling, President and General Manager of Zhejiang Xinzhou Bamboo-based Composites Technology, introduced the technology and its wide application to NewsChina during a recent interview. Since he invented the process in 2007, he started experimenting with the material to make pipes. “Since pipelines are a key component of infrastructure, we needed to establish industrial standards so they can be used in government-backed projects,” Ye said. “So far, we’ve spent years doing trial projects in different parts of China with local government support.” 

Ye demonstrated some of the applications for his product at the conference, including urban utility tunnels and pre-fabricated houses that can resist fire, land subsidence and seismic movements. Dai Chunping, Principal Scientist from FP Innovations in Canada, presented scientific evidence on the strength and durability of bamboo winding composites. 

Bamboo winding composites, as a low-carbon material, can compete with steel, plastics and cement due to lower costs and better strength. “Different from solar and wind energy, this technology will be profitable without government subsidies,” Ye said.  

In early 2018, the domestic industrial standards for bamboo winding technology applications were finally released, having been endorsed by several Chinese ministries and local governments. “We plan to start production at seven to eight factories within the year, and by the end of 2018, we should reach production capacity of 150,000 tons,” Ye said. According to Ye, the NFGA plans to increase production of bamboo winding composite products to up to 10 million tons by 2022. In addition, the new material can be used for mobile homes, storage tanks and high-speed train coaches.  

As the world patent holder for bamboo winding technology, Ye and his company have signed cooperation agreements with some 10 provinces in China and international partners from the Philippines, Nepal and Myanmar.  
Lack of Awareness
While bamboo is green and enjoys huge potential in the construction market, there are a number of obstacles to using it in the industry. Friederich says the biggest problem relates to standards. Many countries do not include bamboo in their building codes, due mainly to a lack of awareness. “With appropriate standards to promote the correct testing and uses of bamboo housing, bamboo can play a much bigger role in international construction,” he said.  

China is the world leader in setting technical standards on bamboo and rattan. According to Liu Xianmiao from the International Center for Bamboo and Rattan, China has established 35 national standards, 133 industry standards and 19 provincial standards for bamboo and rattan. In addition, three international standards for bamboo and two for rattan under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are at a working draft stage. 

Ye Ling is confident about the future prosperous market for bamboo winding composites, saying that as a cost-effective and energy-efficient product, it could substitute for steel, cement, timber and plastic in infrastructure projects, while significantly reducing carbon emissions in the production process.  

Potential in the bamboo and rattan sector is huge. According to INBAR research, it is already worth some US$60 billion. “People are always surprised by what you can do with bamboo and rattan. One of our main aims at INBAR is to make bamboo and rattan part of the conversation,” Friederich said.