Bamboo Processing Considerations II

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By Shana

The advantage of many renewable fibers such as bamboo is that they can be grown without petroleum based toxic pesticides, herbicides and defoliates such as those that are typically used in cotton growing.

Despite the nearly impeccable growing characteristics of bamboo, there are some concerns associated with its processing (as noted in my recent post Bamboo Processing Considerations I). Since that post, I have come across evidence suggesting that there are companies currently processing bamboo in a low impact manner.

At Green Festivals in DC, I visited Jonano, one of the best eco-fashion apparel stores in my view, and spoke with Bonnie Seifers (owner and designer of the company). According to Bonnie, it is possible to process bamboo without harsh chemicals and damaging environmental impacts. Her process (obviously proprietary) does not use bleaching and is apparently organic. Jonano carries a range of organic clothes for men, women and children with a fashionable, yet comfortable look. Many of her fabrics derived from bamboo and processed into her own proprietary blend called ecoKashmere.

Further to the green bamboo processing argument, last weekend I had the opportunity to visit Envi, a relatively new eco-friendly clothing store on Newbury Street in Boston, MA. Envi carries a broad range of green apparel labels from Stuart + Brown, to Panda Snack, Twice Shy and Toggle as well as Edun.

While small, the store carries a variety of styles including some of the softest, most appealing bamboo shirts and skirts I have seen. In chatting with the salesperson, I learned that at least some of the companies producing bamboo clothing are borrowing from the practices of Tencel production and reusing the solvents throughout the pulverizing and combing process, such that environmental damage is minimized. So it may be the case that the bamboo clothes (at least those in Envi Be Green and by Jonano) are more green than originally thought.

While it is very difficult to get a solid handle on exact bamboo processing steps and components, Tencel production appears to be one of closest comparison. Tencel is similar to bamboo in a number of respects.

Tencel is the brand name for a fiber generically called lyocell, and lyocell is a man-made fiber from natural wood pulp. It has proven popular in clothing primarily because it is absorbant , soft and comfortable. It is particularly appealing in high humidity climates. Lyocell (or tencel) is stronger that cotton and rayon and does not lose strength when wet. It is frequently blended with cotton or polyester, typically in oven fabrics. It is manufactured using a solvent spinning process, but the solvent is reused so that there is little environmental exposure.

Patagonia, a remarkably innovative outdoor clothing company with one of the most pioneering green track records of the last two decades has been using tencel for quite some time. According to Kill Vlahos, environmental analysis director for Patagonia, “Tencel production is a closed loop system. All solvents remaining after processing are reused; none gone into the waste steam. Most processors won’t talk about bamboo processing. They say it’s a proprietary process. We need disclosure, and the information we get has to reveal true environmental advantages for us to consider the fiber.” Source: ‘All Natural” in http://www.geartrends.com Winter 2005

So if this is also the case for Bamboo, then we are looking at a much more eco-friendly product. However I dare say that not all companies are embracing the closed loop production process (without multi-stage bleaching). At Green Festivals, I asked as many vendors as possible who were selling bamboo fabrics/products, and only one of them, Jonano confirmed organic, eco-friendly processing. Others, such as Pure Fiber, mentioned that they do not have full information on the processing, since it is proprietary and done before they get the fabric (in places such as Pakistan).

Hopefully someday we will have a better certification process available that will also include the processing of these fibers. Until that time however, it is important to ask questions on the sourcing of materials and make sure that the processing meets your own standards of green-ness.

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13 Comments

  1. karthikeyan said,

    October 18, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    Dear sir,

    I want to quarry about bamboo after procssing its feel very harsh how to bring soft feel. exactly what is the problems of this.

    thank u

  2. jay said,

    October 27, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Very well said indeed,
    I am surprisedd that the world is taking so long to switch over from cotton.
    I belive we will see organic fibers like bamboo in everday clothing we wear in the next few years.

  3. November 27, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    [...] fast. The catch can be how the bamboo is processed into a fiber. Green Cotton’s blog has some good information on bamboo processing [...]

  4. Bob Gifford said,

    January 24, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    There is only one facility currently making bamboo fiber (chemically). It is a patented process that is not nearly as bad as has been alluded to although it can’t be said to be “organic”. Jonano bamboo fibers must come from this same source and therefore can’t be said to be “organic”. In their own literature they state “The pulp is dissolved into viscose before being made into a spun or filament fiber using a low impact, closed loop system”, this is true but they also state in the same article “When this much care has been taken to create a fiber that is truly natural, organic and sustainable, the manufacturing process must also be environmentally responsible. Jonano® creats ecoKashmere® in Asia”. What is the real answer here? Check out the website of the only legal producer of bamboo fiber (from viscose) here “http://www.bambrotex.com”.
    So, to summarize, bamboo from viscose is a valid, green eco-responsible choice, from companies living the green reality. Come on Jonano, you’re a great provider of green goods but lets not play the “greener than thou” game.
    ecoKashmere is just a trademark, not a method of processing bamboo fiber.
    By the way, caustic soda is used as a washing agent for almost all organic cotton textiles and is certified by the global organic textile standards.

  5. January 27, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    [...] in the early stages? Time will tell, but as demand for all natural fibers such as organic cotton, bamboo, soy, hemp and even organic silk and wool, increases, hopefully new companies will continue to [...]

  6. February 2, 2008 at 5:11 am

    [...] Designers made garments with renewable, reusable, non-polluting materials including sasawashi, piña, bamboo, organic cotton and wool, corn-based fibers, recycled fibers and/or fabrics and biopolymers. Designers are encouraged to use techniques that reduce environmental impacts of manufacturing and production as well as source locally produced sustainable materials. For example, designers not only aim to reduce their manufacturing carbon footprint, but also to reduce toxic chemical usage in fabric processing (one concern with bamboo). [...]

  7. Cameron said,

    April 7, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    The bamboo fiber that comes from Asia is really the same thing as conventional rayon from wood pulp – the difference being that the cellulose comes from bamboo instead of trees. The process of converting it to Rayon can hardly be called environmentally friendly – just as this was one of the main reasons why viscose from trees never became more popular that it is. The viscose must be chemically dissolved and then re-constituted into a synthetic fiber using organic solvents – and all this is happening in China where there are weak if non-existent restrictions on the manufacturing process. So while the bamboo “story” sounds great – conventional cotton is more eco-friendly since it does not go through this re-constituting process. Tencel – which was the European Rayon industries answer to complaints regarding the consumption of organic solvents, is a closed loop system where the solvents are re-claimed and re-used (mostly mfg. in Europe under European regulations) and this is also why Tencel is significantly more expensive than “conventional” rayon – but current supplies of Bamboo rayon do not use closed loop system. There is also the issue of pilling/fuzzing with Bamboo (like conventional rayon) – unlike cotton it gets weak when it gets wet (like when you launder it) and this creates pilling/fuzzing when run in a conventional washing machine – the way around this is by blending with stronger fibers like cotton or polyester – but this is a weakness of the fiber and is the other big reason why viscose rayon never had more market acceptance than it does. There is also the stability issue of bamboo – if unblended it has significant dimensional change when it gets wet or with changes in humidity – again this can be remedied by blending it with other fibers, particularly polyester. At the end of the day – the only measure that you can rely on to call bamboo “green” is considering the environmental impact of using bamboo pulp vs. pulp from trees – but the chemical step in between where the fiber is made cannot be called environmentally friendly. Also, once it gets to the dyeing and finishing mill – they are going to use conventional dyes and chemicals to get the effects and performance (hand, shrinkage, color, etc.) that the market demands. When all of the above is is considered, then conventional cotton comes out pretty “green” compared to bamboo. It is no wonder that bamboo is about marketing, not about science. Eco with regards to apparel, is really just the latest “fashion” trend.

  8. syansen said,

    May 9, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    Thank you Cameron for such a well thought out and excellent comment to this post. I want to make readers away that I have just posted a follow-on to the bamboo processing – which looks into the fundamentals of lyocell processing and compares the two. Please check it out at http://www.greencottonblog.com/2008/05/09/is-tencel-an-environmentally-friendly-alternative-to-bamboo-fabric/ and send in any questions.

  9. syansen said,

    May 9, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Regarding your comment on the pilling of bamboo – I just want to add that own a couple of bamboo Tshirts and would have to agree that they do start to pill after a short stint. They are incredibly soft and pliable, but the fabric appears to degrade into pilling relatively quickly. One tangible downside.

  10. Lee said,

    May 13, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you for the informative article on fiber processing and the extensive follow up by Cameron. I study different organic home linens and find it curious to see how different the textures can be, as well as the colors. Obviously, the devil is in the details, quite literally, as many of us are slaves to fashion, also noted by Cameron.

  11. Murali Gopalakrishnan said,

    May 19, 2008 at 8:19 pm

    If you want to avoid pilling, try using a compact yarn or singed yarn.

  12. May 7, 2009 at 4:59 am

    [...] chemicals used to process bamboo into clothing fibers — but apparently these solvents can be reused in order to minimize environmental [...]

  13. May 7, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    [...] chemicals used to process bamboo into clothing fibers — but apparently these solvents can be reused in order to minimize environmental [...]


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