Bamboo is a very versatile plant, with bamboo wood used to make flooring and tableware, and for hurricane-proof home construction. Bamboo has also become popular for home textiles, though, leading us to ask: Are bamboo sheets eco-friendly? Here are the pros and cons of bamboo sheets – part of the Leaf Score Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding.
Table of Contents
Bamboo is naturally incredibly strong and grows incredibly fast. It is used in bridge-building and even for prefabricated eco-homes, as well as for flooring and tableware and utensils. If you need a flexible and strong building material that can withstand hurricanes and tornadoes, consider bamboo.
Given its strength, though, you might wonder how exactly bedding manufacturers turn bamboo into soft, supple fibers for weaving. The answer is that it takes some serious time, effort, and skill to process bamboo using traditional methods. Or, unsurprisingly, a heady mix of toxic chemicals that do the job in a flash and damage the bamboo and the environment in the process.
Why would you want to sleep on bamboo sheets in the first place? Here are some of the things bamboo has going for it.
The advantages of bamboo for sheets
Bamboo bed sheets have a reputation for being:
- Super soft
- Easy to care for
Has bamboo been overhyped, though? I certainly think so. In fact, I think most companies making bamboo textile products (or toilet paper, kitchen towel, etc.) are guilty of greenwashing.
Bamboo – the answer to climate change?
It is true that (some types of) bamboo can grow an astonishing four feet in a day, and that it absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide and puts out a lot of oxygen.
Interestingly, though, while bamboo is often said to absorb five times more CO2 than trees, this isn’t as cut and dried as it sounds.
According to Project Drawdown, which proposes bamboo as a solution to climate change, “Bamboo production can sequester 2.03 metric tons of carbon per hectare per year, based on 12 data points from four sources.”
The estimates I’ve looked at come from credible entities like the Winrock International Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) Carbon Storage Calculator, using data from the Global Removals Database developed by Winrock International under funding from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). By their reckoning, planted woodlots and forests can sequester 4.5 to 40.7 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. This is twice as much as, if not significantly more than, most bamboo.
Some types of bamboo, grown in specific regions, may sequester higher amounts of carbon. In one study, researchers found that a species of bamboo called Dendrocalamus longispathus grown in Northern India, could sequester as much as 71.82 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
How much oxygen does bamboo produce?
Bamboo is also said to produce around 35% more oxygen than other trees. This figure is often thrown around on the internet and in product marketing but it’s not clear where it originated.
Different species of bamboo and trees will produce different amounts of oxygen. Even the same species will produce different amounts of oxygen depending on where they grow, how old they are, and how they’re cultivated and harvested.
One figure I found said that Guadua bamboo, which is very fast-growing, can release 64 tons of oxygen per acre every year. The researcher citing that figure said it was enough oxygen to help 210 to 220 human beings breathe for a year. (Which immediately makes me think about the potential to grow bamboo on Mars!)
The important thing to note, though, is that other types of bamboo don’t grow quite so fast and, thus, sequester less carbon and pump out less oxygen. These two things are inherently connected as they’re the basis of the photosynthesis formula:
6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2
Put a different way
So, if a hectare of the fastest growing bamboo sequesters 71 tons of carbon a year, it also emits 189 tons of oxygen. At the lower end, a hectare of bamboo that sequesters just 2 tons of CO2 a year would produce just over 5 tons of oxygen.
As for trees, using the figures for CO2 sequestration above (4.5 to 40.7 tons of CO2 per hectare per year), a hectare of trees could produce 12-108.5 tons of oxygen a year.
Just to complicate things further, the average number of trees or bamboo needed to offset annual oxygen consumption by any given human varies greatly depending on location.
By one researcher’s calculations, it would take 17 trees in Freehold, New Jersey, but 81 trees in Calgary, Alberta, to offset a single human’s oxygen intake. Why? Because the trees that grow in these places are different species and sizes and grow at different rates.
What’s the takeaway?
Statements like “bamboo absorbs 5 times more carbon than trees” and “bamboo produces 35% more oxygen” than trees” are misleading and tantamount to greenwashing. The ongoing use of these two statistics, with no references to actual research is a perfect example of how green material myths work.
I’m not saying bamboo isn’t eco-friendly and a great material choice in some instances. I’m just arguing, once again, for nuance and research to back up any claims made.
Bamboo growth and regeneration
Finally, bamboo regenerates itself quickly after harvesting, which is arguably one of the biggest things in bamboo’s favor. This means that bamboo plantings can be harvested again and again over a period of some 75-100 years. If you chop down a tree, though, it doesn’t grow back to allow you to harvest it again the next year.
Unlike many other cultivated crops, bamboo requires little water and no pesticides to grow well. I’ve seen this in my neighbor’s garden, where bamboo has escaped onto the easement and is slowly taking over as an invasive species spreading down our street.
Given its eagerness to grow and its other climate-friendly activities, bamboo seems like a good bet as a natural resource to use whenever we can. This is why I’m strongly in favor of bamboo flooring and other hard bamboo products that require minimal processing of the bamboo after harvesting.
As for sheets, though, bamboo isn’t as good as it seems.
This is because the very qualities that make bamboo great for flooring and home construction make it hard to process into soft textiles. What’s more, the techniques manufacturers use to process bamboo can strip some of the material’s natural (prized, and lauded) qualities.
How is bamboo turned into bedding?
To turn hard bamboo into woven fabric, bedding manufacturers have two main options:
- Mechanical processing (usually using natural enzymes and good old elbow grease)
- Chemical processing (usually using harsh chemicals).
Mechanical processing of bamboo is very labor intensive and time consuming. This means it isn’t very economically viable and usually results in very expensive products few can afford. Some higher end clothing companies and bedding companies do produce bamboo using mechanical processes, but these are hard to find and it’s often unclear how eco-friendly the process is, given the lack of certifications for bamboo.
Chemical processing of bamboo is much cheaper and faster. It typically involves the use of chemicals such as:
- Lye (sodium hydroxide)
- Chlorine bleach (which creates dioxins as a byproduct)
- Sulfuric acid
- Carbon disulfide
These chemicals cause hazardous air and water pollution and endanger factory workers.
Bamboo rayon is the semi-synthetic fiber resulting from chemical processing of bamboo. Bamboo rayon makes up most of the bamboo fabrics currently on the market, including bamboo bed sheets. To make bamboo rayon, bamboo fibers (cellulose) are dissolved in a strong solvent, with the resulting pulpy mass then extruded through a spinneret and into a second solvent that hardens the fibers to make threads.
The manufacture of bamboo viscose is slightly less chemically intensive than for bamboo rayon, but viscose is not as soft as rayon.
Only around half of the chemicals involved in processing bamboo are recovered and reused. The rest end up in waterways as part of the huge amount of waste water generated by bamboo fiber production.
Why semi-synthetic bamboo sheets aren’t as good for sleep as you think
Even if you can get over the use of harsh chemicals to create bamboo rayon, you still might think twice about sleeping on bamboo rayon sheets.
That’s because the chemical processes that make bamboo rayon appear to significantly reduce or entirely eliminate the natural properties of bamboo we’re looking for in sheets.
Indeed, the difference in performance between bamboo rayon and traditionally produced bamboo fibers is so significant that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in to chastise manufacturers.
The FTC cracks down on bamboo greenwashing
“With the tremendous expansion of green claims in today’s marketplace, it is particularly important for the FTC to address deceptive environmental claims, so that consumers can trust that the products they buy have the environmentally friendly attributes they want,” David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.“
In its ruling, the FTC also noted that the natural antimicrobial properties of bamboo were lost in the chemical bath of conventional manufacture, meaning that the claims made by the companies cited were misleading at best.
These companies were also cultivating a green image for products that were decidedly not eco-friendly, given the detrimental environmental impact of rayon manufacture and because rayon and viscose don’t break down very well in landfill, and may just leach toxic chemicals when they finally do degrade.
Who are the companies in question? Some big brand names, including, in 2015:
- J.C. Penney
- buybuy BABY (part of Bed Bath & Beyond)
These companies settled with the FTC and agreed to pay a total of $1.3 million for allegedly violating the FTC Act and the agency’s Textile Rules (R).
In 2013, the culprits were:
- Amazon.com, Inc.
- Leon Max, Inc.
- Macy’s, Inc.
- Sears, Roebuck and Co. and its Kmart subsidiaries, Kmart Corporation and Kmart.com.
These companies agreed to pay penalties totaling $1.26 million (R).
All in all, it’s nice to have an active and assertive Bureau of Consumer Protection who go after this kind of greenwashing.
So, are there any bamboo sheets that do fulfil the promise of this eco-friendly material?
Is there a better bamboo fiber for textiles?
Some companies use more traditional ‘softening’ methods for bamboo that take longer and use less harsh chemicals or natural fermentation, which means a much lower environmental impact but a much higher price.
When bamboo is processed into yarn using a combination of a machine and natural enzymes, this is usually referred to as bamboo linen or is labelled as “100% bamboo” without the ‘rayon’ or ‘viscose’ qualifier.
It used to be that these naturally derived bamboo fibers weren’t as soft as rayon made from bamboo (or other plant materials). This made it pretty easy to tell if a manufacturer was misleading you with those spurious ‘100% bamboo’ claims; if something said it was made with bamboo but felt soft to the touch, chances were that the company was falsely advertising that product and contravening textile labeling regulations, with one exception: Litrax.
Litrax bamboo yarn
In 2010, though, a Swiss company, Litrax AG, revealed its natural and eco-friendly bamboo yarn, Litrax-1®. This soft, spinnable bamboo fiber was the result of a finely tuned cocktail of natural, environmentally friendly enzymes that break down bamboo without toxic chemicals.
Compared to semi-synthetic bamboo fibers, Litrax-1 was:
- More durable
- Made without toxic chemicals
- Still anti-odor
The problem is that Litrax AG seems to have dropped the product it spent years refining.
Litrax-1 was said to be as soft as cashmere, with the natural breathability and moisture wicking properties of bamboo lost with toxic chemical processing. Litrax-1 was also said to absorb odors, feel cool in warm weather, and to have an attractive silky sheen. It even earned Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certification and Litrax AG had a special DNA coding system for the fibers, so you could be certain you were buying genuine Litrax-1 products (R).
Why did Litrax-1 vanish?
It’s a mystery (and one that’s bugged me for years now!). I first heard about Litrax-1 in 2010 and was excited to see it blossom.
Now, though, the company doesn’t even mention the fiber on its website and neither do its partners from 2010. Litrax AG hasn’t responded to my enquiries and appears to have switched its focus to high-tech, synthetic fibers and fabrics.
Litrax-1, the only genuinely eco-friendly bamboo fiber for bed sheets, never made it to market.
My best guess is that Litrax realized its bamboo yarn wasn’t economically viable after all. Indeed, there were early indications that cost might be a problem for Litrax-1, with the company noting its intention to target high-end fashion houses as clients because the yarn was too costly for most fashion and textile companies.
Eco-friendly bamboo yarn – the next generation
While I’m sad to see Latrix-1 go, I am heartened to see other companies take up the mantel for eco-friendly bamboo bedding.
Mulberry Threads, for instance, offers more eco-friendly bamboo sheets than most bedding companies. The company isn’t fully transparent about its processes, but it claims not to use harmful chemicals and to instead break bamboo down organically through crushing and natural enzyme application, similar to Litrax-1.
Mulberry Threads then spins the bamboo fibers into yarn for bedding and sleepwear. The products are Oeko-tex certified and made using a closed-loop process, meaning the enzymes and water are recycled again and again. Mulberry Threads also packages its bamboo bedding in reusable bags made using leftover fabric from production.
If you’re looking for eco-friendly bamboo sheets, then, Mulberry Threads is a great option.
Ettitude is another excellent option, offering sustainably sourced lyocell (made using 100% bamboo), with OEKO-TEX certification for its manufacturing process. The company also promises to:
- Only use non-toxic, eco-friendly dyes
- Source bamboo sustainably
- Work with a manufacturing partner certified by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) for safe, human, and ethical working practices.
If you love the feel, look, and other qualities of bamboo textiles, your best bet is to check out lyocell (brand name Tencel). This is a much better option than viscose rayon and is kind of like the grown up, sustainable cousin to viscose rayon. It’s also much more widely available than traditionally processed bamboo bedding.
Not all lyocell is made with bamboo (most is made with eucalyptus), but all lyocell is a semi-synthetic fiber made using similar processes to viscose rayon but with non-toxic solvents in a closed loop process.
With lyocell, around 99% of the chemicals and water used to soften the cellulose fibers are recycled and reused (up to 200 times). Bamboo lyocell is also very absorbent, allowing for the use of non-toxic dyes instead of harsh dyes such as carcinogenic azo dyes.
Not all lyocell is made the same though, and not all is sustainable. Find out more here.
Final thoughts on eco-friendly bamboo bed sheets
After really digging into the sustainability of bamboo bedding and how it is created, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t typically eco-friendly or a high performance material you want in your bed. There are some exceptions, but these are hard to track down and very expensive.
All that said, I still love bamboo (just not in my garden). While it’s not the best choice of natural materials for bed sheets or other household textiles or clothing, I do recommend bamboo for: