Bamboo sheets versus Cotton sheets
Among all the hoopla surrounding America’s growing interest in bamboo fabrics is the intrusion of government agencies increasing tariffs and castigating the science backing this extremely eco-friendly plant. More and more demand for bamboo viscose fabric threatens the environmental monster that is the cotton industry. Attempts have been made to make the production of bamboo fabric an enemy, but, hopefully, its biased opinion comes to no avail. Here we will examine a few of the claims behind the bamboo sheets versus cotton sheets debate.
Firstly, bamboo fabric is classified (by the U.S. government) as rayon. It is technically assigned as a man-made fabric. Although it is not classified as synthetic, it is mystically placed in limbo between natural and synthetic fibers. Apparently, the FTC has decided that the original characteristics of the natural bamboo fibers do not remain – there are actually scientific studies that say the exact opposite. In lieu of honest research toward a plant not exactly native to our land, the FTC seems to have applied the proverbial scarlet letter to bamboo fabrics in order to protect its subsidized cotton farmers (placing the U.S. as the number one exporter of cotton in the world).
Bamboo fabric has been touted to be anti-bacterial from studies across the world. Although the United States’ academic circles are the last to investigate these claims, nevertheless, the institutions of the world have spoken. Studies from 2010 in China and 2012 in India have investigated the antibacterial nature of bamboo-rayon fabric against even harsh levels of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. Although conflicting as to the level of protection against these potentially fatal bacteria, both studies agree that “bamboo rayon showed excellent and durable antibacterial activities against both gram positive and gram-negative bacteria.”So what does the U.S. cotton industry do with these claims? I guess ignore them, and focus on the “heavy chemicals” used in the washing of bamboo pulp (because cotton doesn’t use any environmentally harmful processes right?). If you want to feel guilty for wearing that t-shirt, maybe Google that phrase and find out just how polluting the cotton process really is.
More than just the superior qualities of bamboo over cotton is the environmentally friendly nature in which it is grown and harvested. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of bamboo and cotton growth. Cotton has been labeled as one of the thirstiest crops in the world. This comment was only made about its growth and irrigation requirements. Cotton uses an absurd amount of water not only in growth, but also in production. The wastewater excreted during its many phases of dying and washing are full of chemicals that are environmentally harmful. While only being farmed on 3% of the world’s farmland, it consumes more than 25% of all pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture across the world. This staggering use of chemicals (just in the growth process) puts every comment made about bamboo fabrics’ environmentally unfriendly practices to shame.
On the flip side, bamboo requires no pesticides or herbicides during growth – none! It barely needs any irrigation and stands as one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Some species can grow up to a meter a day and can be harvested every one to three years. The versatility of the crop also bodes well for its demand, as it can be used in construction, for paper, for textiles, for food, etc. Bamboo requires less than 1/3 of the water that cotton uses in the growth phase. Bamboo can contribute 33% more oxygen to the environment than a group of trees similar in area. The benefits of this grass go on and on. While the cotton industry receives praise for its attempted development in the eco-friendly department, criticism is wasted on the bamboo textile production process. Awareness needs to be raised for the benefits of bamboo so that the U.S. can start harvesting and developing environmentally sound practices for fabric production of this already superior plant.
When it comes to thinking about buying bamboo sheets or buying organic sheets (cotton or otherwise), I hope it seems clear than bamboo is more renewable and sustainable, as well as being more desirable for human use.
 Qin et al., 2010 Z. Qin, Y. Chen, P. Zhang, G. Zhang, Y. Liu, Structure and properties of Cu(II) complex bamboo pulp fabrics, Journal of Applied Polymer Science, 117 (2010), p. 1843 and M.D. Teli, Javed Sheikh, Antibacterial and acid and cationic dyeable bamboo cellulose (rayon) fabric on grafting, Carbohydrate Polymers, Volume 88, Issue 4, 16 May 2012, Pages 1281-1287
 B. Ramesh Babu*, A.K. Parande, S. Raghu, and T. Prem Kuma, Cotton Textile Processing: Waste Generation and Effluent Treatment, The Journal of Cotton Science 11:141–153 (2007).