Is Tencel an Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Bamboo Fabric?

Photosource: http://www.passengerpigeon.ca

There’s never only one side to any story. Bamboo fabric is a classic example of a product that on the surface sounds very green. Bamboo plants grow incredibly quickly, can be planted in areas unsuitable for other crops, and rarely need any pesticides or herbicides. But issues arise with the way the fibres are processed and the fabric manufactured.

The most popular manufacturing process involves sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, both highly toxic chemicals to humans, and when released into the environment. The majority of bamboo fabric production takes place in China, a country not renowned for worker’s rights or environmental respect.

Bamboo fabric may have something to learn from another material that’s been produced quietly, with little environmental fanfare, for the last twenty years. Lyocell, sold as Tencel, is a fabric made from wood pulp. Tencel and Tencel blends drape well and are used predominantly in dresses and formalwear.

Tencel is manufactured in a proprietary process by the Lenzing Group, a international group of companies based in Austria. Lenzing describe themselves as “committed to the principles of sustainable management and very high environmental standards.” Tencel is manufactured in a similar way to bamboo fabric, but with important differences that may be the solution to green bamboo fabric manufacturing.

Here’s the recipe. First, take some wood pulp. Lenzing’s pulp mill uses hardwood – mostly birch and oak – from sustainable forestry plantations. The trees are chemically pulped and bleached. Lenzing say they utilise a closed-loop process and don’t use chlorine bleach to minimize environmental impact. However, Lenzing also buys wood pulp and their website becomes vague as to what conditions their suppliers’ wood pulp is manufactured under.

Next, the wood pulp is turned into fibres through a process called “solvent spinning”. Wood pulp is dissolved in a chemical called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMNO). The liquid is squirted through thousands of tiny holes in a spinneret, forming individual Tencel fibers. The spun fibres are washed, the NMNO is retrieved from the water, and it is purified, and reused in a 99% closed-loop process. NMNO can be toxic, but much less so than the sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide used for processing bamboo. Small quantities of NMMO are actually produced in the body as a metabolite of several common drugs.

With a sustainable source of wood pulp, Tencel manufacturing has a much lower environmental impact than bamboo fabric. But despite considerate forestry practices, tree farms are more damaging to the ecosystem than growing bamboo. When natural forests are cleared for farms the local ecosystem suffers from the reduction in bio-diversity in the area. Bamboo is the slight winner here: it naturally colonises areas other plants find challenging and often grows with few other species for company, so it has less environmental impact when planted as a monocrop on a farm. Bamboo also grows much faster than hardwood trees, processing many times more CO2 from the environment than trees can.

Bamboo can be grown ecologically, and because of the increasing popularity of bamboo, companies are developing new, greener, ways to process the fibres ecologically, inspired by Tencel processing. Companies like Pure Bamboo are using new closed-loop processing methods, and hopefully more will follow.

Tencel is currently more eco-friendly to manufacture, and – depending on your standards – acceptably eco-friendly to grow. But bamboo fabric has the potential to be a true eco-friendly cloth.

For more on Tencel, What is Tencel on Wisegeek.

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This post was written by one of Green Cotton’s contributing writer’s Brit.

Bamboo Resources

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Photo source: Flickr by BNZ


For those interested in Bamboo: the art and science, history and culture, I encourage you to check out the following resources:

American Bamboo Society (ABS)
ABS was formed in 1979 and currently has over 1,400 members throughout the U.S. and in 37 other countries. ABS issues a bimonthly Magazine and Journal to disseminate information on the use, care, propagation and ‘beauty’ of bamboo.

There are a number of resources on this site, including an exhaustive list of potential uses for bamboo as a raw material. Interestingly, I did not see clothing on there! Perhaps the ABS would consider revising that aspect of the site with the growing innovations in the area of bamboo apparel.

Another great resource on the site is ongrowing bamboo’ planting and care to different climate & growing conditions, key issues and challenges, and helpful tips to horticulturists. In addition, there is a listing of bamboo companies in China (historically one of the major world producers of bamboo in the world, with several species indigenous to the country).

If you think ABS is a one of a kind operation, you will be happy to learn that this is not the case: there are a plethora of bamboo societies all over the world. In fact, ABS is just one of many longstanding international organizations that gather, disseminate and discuss information on bamboo as well as foster bamboo communities.

As evidenced in part by the long history of these societies it is clear that bamboo has held a certain prestige and value as a plant for centuries in many societies across the globe. What is new is the use of bamboo for apparel.

Bamboo societies are in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Japan, Indonesia, Italy, and elsewhere.

International resources

The international Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) created by the International Development Research Centre of Canada
International Bamboo Foundation
This foundation is awesome! This 501(c)3 and the Environmental Bamboo Foundation (EBF) of Indonesia were both founded by Linda Garland, an international designer and environmentalist who has lived in Indonesia for over 20 years. With base operations on Maui, Hawaii, EBF built the first five all bamboo buildings in the US. The next eight buildings were recently approved for construction but the difficulty in gaining approval without accepted building code standards remains challenging.

Environmental Bamboo Foundation (Indonesia) EBF is an Indonesian non-profit organization with the goal to protect tropical forests by promoting and demonstrating the many conservation and development opportunities that bamboo offers. In less than three years, EBF has put bamboo on the conservation-development agenda while generating increased international interest in bamboo. Based in Bali, EBF Indonesia has affiliate non-profit organizations in America (IBF) and Holland.

World Bamboo Organization
Mission: to promote and support the use of bamboo as a sustainable, alternative natural resource through the development of partnerships and global communication, information exchange, and technology transfer.
Originally founded as the International Bamboo Association (IBA), the idea for an international coordinating body for bamboo practitioners came from the 1991 International Bamboo Workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The IBA was officially established at the 1992 International Bamboo Congress in Japan.

Bamboo: Processing Considerations

Organic Clothing Blog recently brought our attention to the important distinction between bamboo, the miracle plant, and bamboo fiber, the more troublesome fabric. While bamboo is indisputably one of the world’s most sustainable and eco-friendly grass plants, the clothing fiber is not easy to produce from the raw grass, nor apparently as sustainable. Manufacturing the fiber into a usable fabric appears to be wrought with environmentally concerning effects.

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Two well know processes exist for producing regenerated bamboo fiber:

1) Chemical Processing: Sodium hydroxide (NaOH- also known as caustic soda or lye) is used to ‘cook’ the fiber into a form of regenerated cellulose fiber
carbon disulfide is used for hydrolysis alkalization combined with multi phase
bleaching. This process produces a fiber also known as bamboo rayon or modal.
Chemical processing is the most popular bamboo fiber regeneration process.

2) Mechanical Processing: In mechanical transformation, machines are used to crush the woody parts of the bamboo plant; natural enzymes are then used to break the bamboo into a mushy mass at which point the individual fibers are combed out and spun into a yarn. This is similar to the process used to make linen. As such, the end product in this process is also known as bamboo linen. This process is much less popular than chemical, primarily because it is much more labor intensive and costly.

Both processes present environmental hazards and harmful health effects. As for the chemicals (the more widespread process), breathing in carbon disulfide is known to cause tiredness, headache and nerve damage among the exposed. At factory plants it is also associated with neural disorders among rayon manufacturers.

Low levels of exposure to sodium hydroxide is also known to cause irritation of the eyes and skin. As a strong alkaline base in its crystalline form, caustic soda (NaOH) is one of the major ingredients of Drano. These same chemicals are used not only for bamboo, but in standard rayon processing from wood or cotton waste byproducts.

Because of the health risks posed by these chemicals, coupled with the negative environmental impacts in surrounding factory plants, bamboo manufacturing, like other regenerated fibers produced using hydrolysis alkalization, is not considered eco-friendly, nor sustainable. However, important to note is that some companies ARE producing bamboo organically, using processing that do not involve bleaching.

Yet, what is the alternative? When assessing environmental impacts, we must always weigh the alternatives, one of which is traditional cotton. In the case of cotton, while in some cases the processing may be less chemical intensive (although not always) the growing is one of the most environmentally destructive crops in the world both in terms of water and pesticide use.

In addition, it appears there are some organic bamboo processing pioneers out there and more are on the way. I am certain that it is only a question of time before we develop environmentally friendly processes to transform the pulp into fine fibers. Consider the green progress made in household cleaning, lawn fertilizer and pesticide products. It is only a question of time before we discover greener methods for bamboo processing, too.

Additional advantages of Bamboo: Bamboo fabric is very soft and can be worn directly next to the skin. Many people who experience allergic reactions to other natural fibers, such as wool or hemp, do not complain of this issue with bamboo. The fiber is naturally smooth and round without chemical treatment, meaning that there are no sharp spurs to irritate the skin. (Source: Wise Geek.com)

More on Bamboo (wisegeek.com): Bamboo fiber resembles cotton in its unspun form, a puffball of light, airy fibers.

Photo Credit: Organic Clothing Blog

clipped from organicclothing.blogs.com

What do conventional fashion designers Diane vonFurstenberg,
Oscar de la Renta, Kate O’Connor, Agnes B and eco-fashion designers Amanda Shi of Avita, Linda
Loudermilk, Katherine Hamnett, Miho Aoki and Thuy Pham at United Bamboo, Sara Kirsner at Doie Designs, and clothing
manufacturers Bamboosa, Shirts Of Bamboo, Jonano, HTnaturals
in Canada and Panda Snack, and fabric
manufacturers Table Bay Spinners of
South Africa, Richfield Tang Knits Ltd.
in Mauritius have in common? Bamboo.
Chemically manufactured bamboo fiber is a regenerated
cellulose fiber similar to rayon or modal. Chemically manufactured bamboo is sometimes called bamboo rayon because of the many similarities in the way it is chemically manufactured and
similarities in its feel and hand.

Lindaloudermilkfashions

The manufacturing processes where bamboo the
plant is transformed into bamboo the fabric are where the sustainability and
eco-friendly luster of bamboo is tarnished because of the heavy chemicals

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