China's bamboo could replace high-emitting plastics, but tech bottlenecks are stunting growth

China's bamboo could replace high-emitting plastics, but tech bottlenecks are stunting growth

China's bamboo could replace high-emitting plastics, but tech bottlenecks are stunting growth
Bamboo is an attractive and organic substitute for plastics, but China has not yet fully embraced the green solution due to a number of factors. Illustration: Henry Wong

It feeds one of the Earth's rarest species. It was the writing surface for some of the earliest books. It could prove essential in reducing vast amounts of carbon emissions - and China has more of it than anywhere else.

Bamboo, the tall, thick grass perhaps most popularly known as the chief component of the giant panda's diet, has a number of uses even in the present day. The sturdy stalks can be fashioned into scaffolding or roofing, and the pulp can be woven into a variety of fabrics. This versatility has China, in the midst of a long-term effort to meet carbon peaking and neutrality goals, considering the substance as a replacement for petroleum-based plastics.

The idea makes environmental and economic sense, but there will be challenges along the way to universal adoption, including technological bottlenecks and poor public awareness, experts and industry insiders said.

To reduce plastic pollution as well as production emissions, the Chinese government will replace more plastics with value-added products made from bamboo and improve the utilisation rate of the plant, according to an action plan it released earlier this month jointly with the International Bamboo and Rattan Organization (Inbar).

Despite thousands of years of experience using the plant to build shelter, swapping out plastics for bamboo equivalents for products such as single-use bags and toothbrushes is still an uphill climb. As the plan stated, the industry's "size is relatively small, productivity is low, costs are high, and technology and equipment lag behind".

The government will, therefore, provide support to help the sector grow, funding technological breakthroughs and establishing five to 10 demonstration areas by 2025.

"China is working very hard to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and the government is putting a lot of hope on the bamboo industry to help achieve this goal," said Borja De La Pena Escardo, global policy officer at Inbar. The intergovernmental organisation advocates for the widespread adoption of bamboo and rattan in lieu of plastics or other fossil fuel-derived materials, and China is a founding member.

The country has other reasons to be interested in bamboo, even putting aside the benefits which would come with a large-scale reduction in emissions. Bamboo, Escardo said, is deeply intertwined with Chinese history and culture, and can provide green jobs and economic opportunities for people in rural areas.

There is also little chance of a materials shortage. China has more bamboo forest than anywhere else in the world, with a growing area of 7.56 million hectares in 2021, according to the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.

This has made it the largest exporter of bamboo products, and overseas demand is increasing as the West pursues its own emission reduction efforts, Escardo said.

The use of bamboo as an alternative for plastics - most of which are made from fossil fuels such as crude oil and natural gas - is of particular importance as greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of the production process; extraction, transport, refining and manufacturing are all believed to be carbon-intensive activities.

Petroleum-based plastics can take centuries to decompose and have detrimental effects on the environment throughout their life cycle if not disposed of properly, with the potential to pollute waterways and disrupt marine ecosystems.

The world produces about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Of that total, China contributed 63 million, according to figures for 2022 released by the China National Resources Recycling Association. About 30 per cent of the plastic waste generated in the country was recycled, it said.

As such, there is a huge market for eco-friendly materials such as bamboo, "but the availability of technology is low," Escardo said.

There are other organic materials that could fill the same role, such as maize and sugarcane. They are cheap to produce, regenerate quickly and contain no synthetic toxins. But they also come with controversies, particularly their potential impact on farming.

As those crops are also food sources for human populations, using them to produce bioplastics would likely mean competition or even a crowding out if the practice proves lucrative - a change that would have far-reaching and potentially disastrous consequences given the already dire threat climate change presents to food security.

Alice Zhang, general manager of Jiangqiao Bamboo, said most businesses in the industry are small and lack the capacity for research and development. Her company makes computer accessories from the material and is based in Tonggu county of East China's Jiangxi province.

"The government has been talking about supporting the sector for years, but there's been no real action. Without government funding, the technological transformation will be very slow," she said.

The company, founded in 2009, has not made any major technological advancement in the past decade due to pressures to control costs, she said.

About 80 per cent of its products are sold overseas - mainly in Europe, the US, South Korea and Japan - as "people there are better aware of environmental issues", she said.

In comparison, she added, "the domestic market is mainly supported by a small group who are simply fond of the products instead of [being] driven by an obligation to go green. Others buy them as gifts for friends and business partners."

In Anji county of Zhejiang province, a more developed area and home to some of the country's most popular bamboo tourism sites, some industry players are employing technology to make the grass into a bioplastic that can be turned into single-use items such as bags and tableware.

"It's a difficult thing to do in China. After the pandemic, there's less financial support from the government," said Zang Xiaofeng, deputy general manager of Senlin Biotechnology.

"What we're doing is making new biodegradable plastics, which are more costly but welcomed by the overseas market," he said. "But at home, the authorities prefer using raw bamboo, which is [simpler] but also easier to mould."

Bags made from bamboo can completely decompose in 18 months, but have not yet been embraced by the public due to poor awareness of the environmental benefits and a higher price, he said.

Some scientists have also found that bioplastics are not as biodegradable as expected. A recent study by Wageningen University in the Netherlands has found 48 different types of microplastics across tested soil samples from more than a dozen farms, and nearly 40 per cent of the microplastics detected were bio-based.

The Anji government pledged 3 million yuan (US$417,987) to reward purchasers of biodegradable products to help boost sales, according to a government directive from August.

But biodegradable bags, one of Senlin's main products, are so far only being sold at local post offices, supermarkets, banks and government agencies.

Upstream, the industry also faces high costs due to a lack of mechanisation in the felling of bamboo, according to Wang Xian, founder of a bamboo plywood manufacturer from Taojiang county, Hunan province. The area is a hub for bamboo production in central China.

"We still rely totally on human labour to cut bamboo, carry it downhill and transport it to our factories, and there are not many local farmers who are willing to do this job as it's too tiring," he said.

Buying 1 tonne of fresh bamboo costs him about 600 yuan (US$83.6), including 300 yuan for manual labour.

Bamboo can grow tall enough for commercial use in three years, Wang said, and with current harvesting methods there will be plenty of acreage that goes underutilised or neglected completely.

About a third of the 2,000-square county is covered in bamboo forest, but only one tenth of that third is being utilised at the moment, he said.

Despite government action over a decade ago to curb their use, single-use plastics are still a common sight across China, and sustainable alternatives remain niche products.

The country began to reduce plastic consumption in 2008, banning supermarkets and shopping malls from providing disposable plastic bags for free to shoppers.

In 2020, it rolled out a stricter plan, pledging to gradually phase out the use of non-degradable plastic bags, tableware and other items in hotels in most areas of the country over a period of five years.

Though bamboo is just one solution among many to curb the world's excessive consumption of plastics, Escardo said, "if we have many solutions together, the opportunity to compete with the plastic industry will be higher.

"But nowadays it's still difficult."

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