- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to be concerned about the fate of the world’s natural resources. If, like me, you are looking for ways to be Earth-friendly whenever practical, you might want to know more about bamboo.

Bamboo has been appreciated by Asian cultures for centuries. But until a few months ago, my personal experience with bamboo was limited to the rattling of patio wind chimes.

I saw displays of bamboo bowls, cutting boards and table accessories in specialty cookware stores. They were not traditionally Asian in design but fashioned in a contemporary, sculptural and Scandinavian sort of way. Why might we be interested?

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth. It needs no replanting, grows without fertilizer or pesticides to 100 feet, and is harvested from controlled stands with an astounding growth cycle of three to five years. It can grow as much as two feet in a day. Compare that to the growth of pine, maple and oak trees.

One difference is that bamboo is not a wood but a woody grass.

Bamboo could play an important role in the reduction of timber consumption, environmental and forest protection, and the sustainable development of rural economies. It is the fastest-growing canopy for “regreening” degraded lands, and it releases 35 percent more oxygen than equivalent timber stands, according to bamboo industry sources.

It is used around the world for applications as varied as food, shelter, fuel and clothing. Many countries use bamboo as a construction material. All these uses make bamboo an important nontimber, nonpetroleum resource. With the tensile strength of steel, it is one of the most versatile and durable natural resources in the world.

Who knew? I assembled a collection of bamboo boards, bowls, plates and utensils and started experimenting.

For a month at my house, it was bamboo competing against wooden boards and china bowls. In other words, it was abused to see what would happen. Short answer: nothing.

I tried bread and cheese boards. The two bamboo boards made from 100 percent organic bamboo were chopped on, sliced on, dropped and treated like their wooden cousins. Their handsome blond-brunette grain remained unmarred by cuts or scratches.

I also experimented with lacquerware, which I found to be aesthetically pleasing and satiny smooth with rich, warm tones of golden brown and soft, earthy contrasting colors. You aren’t supposed to soak the bowls, so I immediately soaked them. I left bowls overnight filled to the brim. Nothing happened.

I also found that cooking spoons, spatulas, forks and stirrers made of bamboo work just like their wooden cousins.

Bamboo is durable, sturdy and strong. Because it absorbs little moisture, there is minimal shrinking, swelling or warping, making it ideal for use in and around the kitchen. It also resists cuts and scratches and doesn’t absorb flavors. It comes with use and care instructions, of course.

Treat it as you would treat your best wooden accessories. Clean it by hand in hot, soapy water, and wipe it dry. Avoid the dishwasher and microwave oven.

None of us is about to throw out our perfectly good wooden cooking tools, but we might think about bamboo the next time we need a gift. It’s harder than maple and lighter than oak, allowing the overall life span of, say, a cutting board to be much longer than wood.

Curious about the timing and marketing of bamboo housewares, I decided to contact a manufacturer. It somehow seemed fitting that a pair of entrepreneurs who grew up surrounded by clear-cut fields in once-logging-dependent Oregon had launched an enterprise based on bamboo.

Rachel Speth and her husband, Jeff Delkin, are co-founders of Bambu LLC, makers of contemporary bamboo housewares that are pressed, woven, laminated, peeled and coiled. Mrs. Speth explained why bamboo inspired their business.

“We discovered the wonders of bamboo while living in Asia,” she said. “I was with Nike as a product-development director, working with suppliers throughout Asia. Jeff worked with two international advertising agencies. When I decided it was time to leave the corporate world and do my thing, I knew I wanted to produce consumer goods, but I wanted to feel good about it. Both of us grew up in ‘green’ families, and I even recycled as a child. I decided to use renewable materials and support local communities.”

Mrs. Speth leads Bambu’s product design and supervises manufacturing resources, while her husband organizes communication efforts.

The couple chooses to stay in Shanghai to be near the factories that produce their products. The company’s merchandise is manufactured in Vietnam and China and then goes to a warehouse in New Jersey.

“We are a very green company,” Mrs. Speth says. “A bamboo laminate holds the pieces together, and it’s pressed and formed using a water-based glue.

“Our company is about the process, not just the end result. We will only work with manufacturing partners who demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection and fair labor practices. We use natural resources in a natural manner.”

Panda watchers need not be concerned, she says. “We use moso bamboo. This is not a species consumed by the panda, which dines exclusively on other bamboo varieties.”

Bamboo prices are similar to those of fine wood. Here’s a general idea of prices: a cutting board, 11 by 15 inches, $16; an appetizer tray, 12 by 12 inches, $18; plates, 9-inch disposable but reusable, package of eight, $5.

Among places to find Bambu brand and other bamboo products are Smith and Hawkins, Sur la Table and other cookware outlets. It looks as though bamboo could be the next thing in renewable materials, not to mention kitchenware.

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