Q: I’ve been thinking of getting bamboo sheets rather than organic cotton. Are bamboo sheets okay for a baby?
A: Bamboo is a great natural resource in a number of ways. However, as with many of our natural resources, bamboo becomes a mere shadow of itself while undergoing the processes used to bring it to market. In fact, according to a recent ruling from the FTC which determined that four manufacturers of “bamboo” textile products (including crib sheets and baby clothing) are guilty of making false claims, “bamboo-based textiles, actually made of rayon, are not antimicrobial, made in an environmentally friendly manner, or biodegradable.
What exactly does the FTC mean? Well, the ‘actually made of rayon’ statement does not mean the textiles don’t contain bamboo pulp; rather, it refers to the process – man-made fiber which uses cellulose (usually wood pulp) as a base, is rayon. The resultant textile when bamboo pulp is used would more correctly be called ‘bamboo rayon.
The FTC statement that the bamboo products are not made in an environmentally friendly manner refers to the “harsh chemical that releases hazardous air pollutants” used in the manufacturing process. This chemical also destroys any inherent antimicrobial properties in the bamboo – hence the FTC statement that the textile is not antimicrobial.
The above is simple enough, but the FTC statement that bamboo-based fabric isn’t biodegradable really needs clarification: If you put a ‘bamboo’ sheet in a compost heap or lay it in the soil in your garden, it will decompose. So, why does the FTC say it’s not biodegradable? The basic problem is the definition of the word ‘biodegradable': biodegradable is generally defined as ‘capable of being decomposed by biological agents’ such as bacteria or enzymes. But to advertise something as biodegradable, the FTC requires that the materials breakdown quickly in their normal disposal methods. As the normal disposal methods for textiles are recycling or landfill, neither of which environments contain the biological agents needed to break them down, the textiles cannot be called ‘biodegradable.
Three of the four companies charged with making false claims have settled the issue with the FTC by agreeing to no longer make those claims. The fourth, Bamboosa, was still in litigation as of a few weeks ago.
So, why is bamboo-based fabric still a better option than completely man-made textiles?
– Its natural antimicrobial properties enable it to be grown without pesticides. The processing does eliminate the natural antimicrobial properties, but at least we are not subject to the possible dangers of pesticides.
– It is a hardy and renewable resource. Because bamboo plants survive drought and flooding and come to maturity relatively quickly, bamboo may be among the most sustainable plants to use for textiles. And you’re not killing any rain forests in the process.
– It can apparently be bleached without the use of chlorine.
– It is easy to dye and therefore doesn’t require harsh chemicals to hold a color.
– I have also been told that there are ways to create bamboo fabric without using harsh chemicals. My understanding is that the result is a rough, somewhat abrasive fabric – not something you’d want to put on a crib mattress and have right next to your baby’s delicate skin – but I would be on the lookout for other manufacturing methods that may give us the silky products we now know.
The organic cotton story is as simple as the bamboo story is confusing – our crib mattresses are made with cotton that was grown without harmful chemicals, and no harmful chemicals were used in processing. Although bamboo is better than some fabric alternatives, organic cotton is probably the best option.