FANNING out from the sodden delta of the Yangtze, and southward to the flanks of the Nanling mountains, over 6m hectares of emerald bamboo groves—one-fifth of the world’s reserves—flourish in China. Giant pandas nibble the softest shoots. Around 40bn pairs of disposable chopsticks are made from bamboo twigs annually in China, for use with everyday meals. Steel scaffolding is still often shunned for bamboo on skyscrapers under construction in even the ritziest parts of Hong Kong. The history of the grass is colourful, too. Before paper, Chinese wrote on bamboo slips; they used bamboo tubes for irrigation, and later stuffed them with gunpowder to ignite muskets.
Yet for all its importance and abundance bamboo is “China’s forgotten plant”, says Martin Tam, an expert in Hong Kong. To demonstrate its potential, he greets visitors with a can of bamboo juice, proffers a bamboo business card, and gestures to a bamboo armchair near his desk. He says the plant should be “green gold”, for it is one of the world’s swiftest growers, gaining up to 1m a day, and can be harvested in under ten years, half the time it takes for the softest woods to mature. Its tensile strength is greater than that of mild steel. It withstands compression twice as well as concrete, and needs next to no watering, pesticides or fertilisers.
But the hard work begins after it is cut. Though it thrives in steamy, rain-drenched areas, bamboo products require a lot of treatment to withstand sunshine and moisture, as they still contain sugar and water. A string of lacquers, resins, waxes, bleaches and preservatives are required to stave off termites and decay. As a result, manufacturing has remained labour-intensive, crude and small-scale, says Mr Tam. Factories nestle in bamboo groves. Margins are low. Toothpicks, matchsticks, incense sticks, mats and baskets are still among the plant’s most common offshoots. Selling “poor man’s timber” to Chinese is hard. In Shengzhou, among the most prolific regions in Zhejiang province in eastern China, about 95% of bamboo handicrafts are exported.
But the material’s prospects are improving. One reason is environmental awareness. Chinese firms account for 90% of the international export market for laminated bamboo flooring, the appeal of which has grown as Western consumers go green. In 2016 factories churned out 116m square metres of it. The International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation, an intergovernmental body based in Beijing, says the renewable, low-carbon alternative to plastics and timber is now “part of China’s environmental leadership bid”. Bamboo releases lots of oxygen into the air, swallowing four times as much carbon as some trees. Since 2012, Chinese companies can offset their carbon emissions by buying credits in bamboo plantations.
At a forum last May on President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative for better infrastructure, a private company from Zhejiang province was invited to display bamboo strong enough to build storm-drainage pipes and shock-resistant exteriors for bullet-train carriages. The Chinese state is giving generous subsidies to farmers. The annual value of the bamboo industry has grown 500-fold since 1981, to $32bn; in three years China plans to boost this to $48bn, and to have 10m employed.
Heats shoots and leaves
Technology is also changing things. Bamboo is finding its way into a range of new plywoods and plastics. Bamboo powder, produced during manufacturing, has mainly been used to fuel factories. Now it is being combined with resins to make new materials. Leftover plastics recycled from air-conditioning and suitcase factories are mixed with bamboo powder to make outdoor decking for the likes of Verdee, a fashionable bamboo-flooring and homeware store in Hong Kong.
Taohuajiang, one of a handful of big companies in the industry, wants to get more high-tech. Based in Hunan province, Taohuajiang was listed in June 2016 on the NEEQ, a Chinese startup exchange. Its net profit, of 4.6m yuan ($700,000) in 2016, came mainly from selling bamboo flooring and beams. Recently it patented a carbonisation process, done through successive heatings, that ensures bamboo cannot corrode. Peng Jian of Taohuajiang is confident that the “magic grass” could end up replacing steel, timber and plastic (though as yet his new eco-friendly material is two-and-a-half times the price of steel, too heavy to substitute for wood in furniture and cannot be bent like plastic).
Mr Peng’s bamboo composites have, however, been used in everything from railway sleepers to manhole covers. BMW and Lexus, both carmakers, are among his traders’ clients, as they consider replacing plastic and wood in car interiors. A German marine-floorings firm wants to apply his bamboo composites to cruise decks. A Canadian company in the space industry is using them in its telescopes.
Other bits of the bamboo industry face harder times. As scaffolding, it has been phased out in much of mainland China as a potential safety and fire hazard. Hong Kong still lashes together about 5m bamboo poles a year at its construction sites. They are three times quicker to erect than steel rods and cost a fraction of the price. But the number of workmen trained on bamboo is dwindling. At WLS Holdings, among the oldest bamboo-scaffolding firms on the island, losses have grown. The firm’s problems go deeper than bamboo, but its fading fortunes capture something. As one part of the industry wilts, another looks about to shoot up.
Innovative materials from bamboo are helping a new industry to sprout