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Bamboo or Bamboozled

Published on 9/10/2022
Two weeks ago, two young men walked down a side street here in Crawfordsville, eyes cast to the ground, sweeping gazes and picking up bits of trash. They wore lanyards and gloves and dropped bits of plastic wrappers, cans, and styrofoam that littered the berm.

For a few days the block looked cleaner, but on Friday morning each week, more packaging flits in the wind, detritus of trash released by raccoons and feral cats from the stickered bags waiting for pickup. Most of the litter is the single-use kind. Snack wrappers, gas station styrofoam cups, fast food containers. The type of plastics that can’t be recycled because they gum up machines, the kind of plastics that European nations like the UK and Sweden are banning.

We Americans might shudder at the knowledge that nations like Sweden now mandate multi-stream recycling and composting and that they pay staff to trash-snoop. For its part, Sweden is running an all-out campaign to reclaim its once lush landscapes from becoming landfills. In Scotland and many EU nations, refuse has multiple streams with receptacles for compostable waste- including recycled non-ink paper, food, and bamboo or compostable single-use food packaging- as well as metal and glass recycling, plastics “recycling” and unrecyclable waste. Hotels and AirBnBs provide a compost bucket and labeled trash cans. 

You’ve heard the saying a penny saved is a penny earned. The adage reminds us that small things add up, something the EU recognized when it banned those single-use plastics where alternatives exist in 2019. Cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, food and beverage containers, cups, packets, wrappers, and plastic bags. Alternatives commonly used with “take away” food service and on airplanes include cutlery from birchwood, compostable “bio-plastics,” and recyclable paper. Bamboo and paper bowls, plates, and cups have replaced styrofoam. Along with providing multi-stream refuse containers, markets expect zero-waste solutions like BYOB- bring your own bag. 
As the president of the EU said in June 2019 "Plastic straws or forks are little objects but can make great, long-lasting damages. The single-use plastics legislation will address 70 percent of marine litter items, avoiding environmental damage that would otherwise cost €22 billion by 2030.”  In short, these costs add up, and it pays to pivot. 

EU households spent over 600 billion euros on food services like takeaway (like fast food pickup and delivery), catering, and airplane service according to a 2021 report published in the journal Polymers. The COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for food delivery and pickup, and that packaging made up forty percent of all plastic used. Meanwhile, in 2020, Frontline and NPR published exposés on the recycling industry revealing that 91 percent of plastic has been buried in landfills, incinerated, or merely dumped into the ocean. In spite of three decades of messaging and community programs, western nations haven’t been recycling what citizens placed in the bins provided for them. Though we mainstreamed recycling in the 1990s, the plastics industry ramped up plastic production and made new products cheaper than recycled plastic. - Have you noticed that single potatoes, cucumbers, and fruit are now shrink-wrapped?- 

It all felt safe. We looked for the recycling number on the 583 billion water bottles, as well as the billions of plastic vegetable and fruit containers, shampoo and deodorant containers. We dutifully did our part. It felt guiltless to buy more and more items of our goods and food in single-use plastic. Then evidence of plastics’ forever chemicals’ started showing up on remote mountain tops, in the arctic circle, in fish from the deepest depths of the ocean, and all breast milk gathered for study.   
The NPR and Frontline reports cited a 1974 speech by an industry insider who predicted this disaster. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis.” So the plastic industry knew fifty years ago that recycling wouldn’t be a sustainable solution, which should lead us to ask, are the new replacements sustainable?

Of the current replacements bamboo, is one of the most popular, bamboo. Do a little “googling” and it’s clear they have a powerful lobby, as do other “natural” replacements such as corn and hemp. Bamboo is touted as having greater tensile strength than steel (28,000 PSI). It produces 35% more oxygen which is great for carbon sequestration. It has a rapid growth rate, three feet per day in some varieties, which means it’s mature in one to five years, unlike forty years for trees. It also has a shallow network of roots that don’t have to be plowed up to regrow the crop so it helps hold soil in place. For this reason, bamboo is the new eco-solution for toilet paper, food packaging and cutlery, household objects, and clothing. 

What should we be advised of now? Like anything, when we overconsume, we create unnecessary trash and new industries that put stress on another ecosystem. The bamboo industry is uprooting land to sew bamboo as a monocrop. In some places, they are taking out native, diverse ecosystems. Consumers should pressure companies to avoid this type of planting. Furthermore, bamboo is not sustainable for all products. Turning bamboo into cloth requires the use of highly toxic chemicals to break the fibers down into something soft. 

As with anything that is single-use or easily disposed of, like fast fashion, we should be skeptical, not only of the industry but our own demand for convenience. The most eco-friendly trash still releases carbon and requires resources to compost or recycle. We might be bamboozling ourselves if we think one product is the perfect replacement for another. More often than not, we might ask if we can restore some traditional habits like bringing our own reusable containers and asking our grocers, restaurants, and businesses to find solutions to reduce packaging.