China has finalized the "Bamboo Instead of Plastic" plan. Why is bamboo chosen to replace plastic?

Bamboo Over Plastic: A Misleading Trend?

After taking a look at the appendix of the National Development and Reform Commission’s “Bamboo Instead of Plastic” three-year action plan document, which includes the main product directory of “Bamboo Instead of Plastic” (2023 Edition), I almost found it laughable.

I can assertively say that unless there is a mandatory ban on plastic usage, the so-called “Bamboo Instead of Plastic” will turn into an unmemorable farce in three years.

The bamboo fiber products on the market that seem indistinguishable from plastic are not purely made of bamboo fiber; they are actually a type of bamboo plastic, a composite material mixed with other polymers. In terms of environmental protection, they might be even less sustainable than plastics due to their non-recyclability. Even if they are made degradable, the plastic components will still remain in the environment after degradation.

Moreover, genuinely eco-friendly bamboo fiber products (without plastic additives) cannot achieve the performance necessary to replace plastics.

Additionally, whether it’s due to the process or the materials used, Europe has conducted a risk assessment on bamboo fiber utensils and found that bamboo plastic utensils release more formaldehyde and melamine into food compared to traditional melamine utensils. Based on this, the EU has already banned the sale of bamboo plastic materials and products in contact with food in the market since 2021. EU laws also prohibit labeling bamboo products containing plastics as “eco-friendly,” “environmentally friendly,” or “recyclable.”

The EU has clearly articulated the issue:

The use of bamboo and other unauthorized ground plant materials in plastic food contact materials (FCM) may represent a public health risk as this may allow the accelerated degradation of certain plastics. This can lead to substances migrating from the plastic into food.

This allegedly sustainable alternative to the plastic materials, however, is in fact precisely made of plastic, where the bamboo or other plant-based additive is added only as a filler (to give it volume and shape). This practice is making the plastic non-recyclable and even less eco-friendly.

The EU has also expressed concerns over the sourcing of bamboo materials:

Also, without compliance and documentation, it is not possible to verify the origin of the materials. For instance, it may prove impossible to understand if it was new or recycled bamboo that was used for the manufacture of a given tableware.

Yet, “bamboo dining utensils” are listed in the document from the National Development and Reform Commission, claiming to replace corresponding plastic products.

This raises a question: Does the “bamboo dining utensils” in the document include bamboo plastic utensils? I can understand bamboo toothpicks as being 100% bamboo, but I have some doubts whether bamboo fiber lunch boxes and bamboo dining utensils are bamboo plastic. If they include bamboo plastic utensils, then has the related food safety issue identified by the EU been technically resolved before the commission released this document? The document is ambiguous in this respect, but let me warn: if the safety issues discovered by the EU are not resolved, and our government promotes bamboo plastic utensils domestically, what kind of action is that?

This is a very real obstacle. Either mix bamboo fiber into plastic, turning recyclable into non-recyclable (and even harmful in specific scenarios), or accept a compromise on performance. Unless there is a breakthrough in scientific research, “Bamboo Instead of Plastic” is incredibly challenging.

At least until the issue of releasing harmful substances identified by the EU is resolved, I won’t support my friends and family purchasing any plastic utensils containing bamboo or other plant components.

The biggest problem is not even the farce itself but that it’s forgotten, which means it can be repeated in the future.

The Realistic Challenges of “Bamboo Instead of Plastic”

Due to a lack of understanding about modern societal developments, the call for “Bamboo Instead of Plastic” has been around for more than a decade. However, realistically, it has barely replaced 1% of plastic use scenarios. Behind this are various interest groups exploiting the environmentalist trend, pushed mainly through several associations in Beijing. It’s an overly ambitious endeavor.

  1. Capacity Issues: China consumes approximately 100 million tons of plastic annually. By 2024, the confirmed technological development path is to opt for plant straw or starch to synthesize plastics. The specific technology involves separating three elements and then decomposing them into pentose and hexose (via fermentation or chemical methods), followed by fermentation, purification, and synthesis. With 700 million tons of straw available nationally, it’s possible to manufacture 200 million tons of plastic, which meets the capacity requirement.

  2. Functionality Issues: Out of the 100 million tons of plastics, 50 million tons are fibers, with over 40 million tons of this being PET slices used for polyester preparation, and the remainder primarily for nylon preparations and other materials like spandex, polypropylene, polyethylene, and acrylic. About 4 to 5 million tons of the fiber are cotton, accounting for 1/10th of consumption. Imagine what it would be like if 1/10th of your clothing was not made from synthetic fibers. Can bamboo replace this part?

Indeed, PET decomposes into terephthalic acid, which cannot degrade on the surface (due to the absence of far-ultraviolet radiation) and poses significant environmental toxicological hazards and bioaccumulation effects. The only feasible industrial alternative currently is polylactic acid, which the state is vigorously promoting.

Out of the remaining 50 million tons:

  • About 10 to 20 million tons are plastic woven products, mainly used for packaging cement, feed, fertilizer, and as big bags.

  • Twenty to thirty million tons are films, including BOPP, BOPET, BOPA, mainly for food packaging and electronic packaging. Others include CPP, blown PE, CPE, agricultural films like greenhouse and ground films, wrapping films, and food packaging. There are also photovoltaic packaging materials like EVA, POE, PVDF, totaling more than 20 million tons.

These don’t seem replaceable by bamboo either. Among them, the small portion of convenience bags, a few million tons in total, can’t realistically be replaced by bamboo baskets. Currently, materials like PBAT are used as alternatives for convenience bags.

  • Then there are five million tons of PET used for mineral water bottles, beverage bottles, and several hundred thousand tons of PC, PE, PPU, etc., for cosmetic bottles, medicine bottles, baby bottles. Can bamboo tubes replace these?

  • The rest includes injection-molded products: several million tons including car parts, electronic product components, plastic pallets, beach chairs, toys, and so forth. Can these be replaced with bamboo?

So, what exactly can bamboo replace in the realm of plastics? What about electrical resistance and flame retardancy? Can bamboo meet any of the performance indicators for strength, thermal, optical, acoustic, or electrical properties?

Broadly speaking, plastics also include rubbers and adhesives, which bamboo can’t replace either.

It’s overly optimistic to think bamboo can significantly replace these. As for wood plastic composites, these already use plant fibers. The idea of bamboo straws, while amusing, is unnecessary given the current realization of biodegradable plastics as substitutes.

It’s more sensible to focus on manufacturing woven tools with bamboo.

The Bamboo Dilemma in Modern Applications

I may not understand everything, but one thing is clear: bamboo mice and keyboards have been experimented with quite early in the peripheral circle, and indeed there are many “material” enthusiasts in various hobbyist domains.

As bamboo is relatively the most accessible plant material in the Chinese market,

it’s often the first material people think of for crafting and manufacturing due to its availability. However, the results often defy expectations.

Back in the day, when I was keen on peripherals, smart ads always recommended a bamboo keyboard to me, which looked like a mahjong mat we use for sleeping in summer. It looked elegant and pretty, at least in the seller’s showcase…

How was the tactile feel? Well… let’s just say it wasn’t unusable…

Moreover, it’s visibly more costly to produce than ABS, perhaps even more expensive than dual-shot PBT. But if it’s used solely for the outer shell, it doesn’t impact the feel as much. However, compared to equivalent ABS materials, bamboo is either too light and not durable or too heavy and costly. Think about it, how much would you pay for a bamboo cutting board that’s not so knife-friendly?

Another issue is that bamboo isn’t flexible, making it nearly impossible to use for phone cases.

In household environments, if we’re not talking about the catering industry, people usually use bamboo or porcelain for their utensils, and that’s fine. But if restaurants were to switch from plastic to bamboo, the sentimental and environmental costs might not necessarily be lower than those of plastic products.

And as for bamboo polymer composites, haven’t they already been proven to be less eco-friendly than pure plastics?

In conclusion, bamboo, being the most accessible material in the Chinese market, would naturally dominate if it had any superiority. The market wouldn’t need governmental directives if bamboo were truly advantageous, as it has been a crucial material in China’s production and daily life even before any official concern. The fact that the state feels the need to issue directives suggests that, in many instances, plastic remains superior in terms of cost and application…

I can’t stand the abundance of soft articles everywhere.

Why use bamboo instead of plastic?


Bamboo pulp fiber is not a natural fiber.


Bamboo pulp fiber is the first type of chemical fiber created by humans.

It can replace petrochemical fibers.


Don’t get too excited just yet. Bamboo pulp fiber is the first type of chemical fiber created by humans, but why isn’t it more widely adopted?


The pollution during the production of bamboo pulp fiber is exceptionally severe.

Replacing Plastic with Bamboo: Not as Simple as It Sounds

The shift from plastic to bamboo is not merely a matter of substituting bamboo products for plastic ones, like using bamboo baskets instead of plastic bags.

It involves using bamboo as a raw material and employing new technologies to create novel materials to replace plastic products, much like rice husk-made lunch boxes and cutting boards.

However, it’s worth noting that the main challenge with plastic products in China is their poor recyclability. Items with some recycling value have already been collected by scrap collectors and recycling efforts, leaving behind a significant portion that is difficult to recycle. This problem cannot be solved simply by switching to bamboo.

Because even if bamboo is adopted as an alternative, improper recycling practices could lead to a new form of pollution.

“Bamboo as a Substitute for Plastic” Initiative: Clarification of Bamboo Fiber

A highly-rated contributor mentioned bamboo pulp fiber, but it’s important to note that bamboo fiber can be categorized into three types: bamboo original fiber, bamboo pulp fiber, and bamboo charcoal fiber. Therefore, I referred to relevant documents, specifically the “Three-Year Action Plan to Accelerate the Development of ‘Replacing Plastic with Bamboo’” which should shed light on the aspects of the bamboo substitution plan.

You can find the document here: {PDF Document}

I’ve extracted key portions of the content for clarity:

“Replacing Plastic with Bamboo” refers to the process and activities of substituting plastic products with bamboo-based products, including full bamboo products and bamboo-based composite materials that partially or completely replace plastic products.

The document does not explicitly mention bamboo pulp fiber; instead, it emphasizes the replacement of plastic products with bamboo-based products. For example,

Replacing plastic products with bamboo-handled toothbrushes, bamboo cups, and other bamboo-based personal care items.
Substituting plastic products with bamboo lighting fixtures, bamboo furniture, bamboo desks and chairs, bamboo storage boxes, bamboo shoe racks, and similar products.

It’s evident that the core idea of “Replacing Plastic with Bamboo” is not about making plastic from bamboo but rather substituting plastic products with processed bamboo products.

In conclusion, I believe it’s not accurate to assert that the “Bamboo as a Substitute for Plastic” initiative exclusively focuses on bamboo pulp fiber, as suggested by the highly-rated contributor.

Significance of China’s “Replacing Plastic with Bamboo” Initiative

  1. Leveraging Bamboo’s Advantages: China boasts over 500 bamboo species, covering 7.01 million hectares of bamboo forests, mainly concentrated in 16 provinces such as Fujian, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang. Unlike the long growth cycle of trees, bamboo can be harvested in just 3 to 5 years. In 2021, China produced a staggering 3.1 billion bamboo culms, with a bamboo industry value close to 381.8 billion RMB. The total import and export trade volume of bamboo products exceeded 2.2 billion USD, accounting for over 60% of the world’s bamboo product trade. By 2025, the national bamboo industry’s total output value is projected to exceed 700 billion RMB. Bamboo is widely used in various sectors, including construction, transportation, packaging, furniture, decoration, textiles, and more. Its fast growth, combined with superior physical properties such as strength and flexibility, has led to its adoption as a sustainable alternative in numerous applications.

  2. Reducing Dependence on Petroleum: Plastics are a byproduct of crude oil refining, with the plastic industry consuming around 8% of global oil production. If bamboo can replace plastics entirely, it could reduce our dependence on oil by 8%. Considering China’s high reliance on oil imports (often exceeding 70%) and the geopolitical risks associated with oil supply disruptions, promoting “Replacing Plastic with Bamboo” can indirectly safeguard the country’s energy security.

  3. Environmental Contribution: Unlike plastics, bamboo is biodegradable. Plastics are difficult to degrade due to their strong molecular structure, leading to environmental pollution when disposed of. In contrast, bamboo not only serves as a windbreak and sand-fixing plant, reducing soil erosion, but also purifies the air and has excellent carbon sequestration capabilities. Scientific analysis shows that bamboo’s carbon sequestration ability surpasses many tree species, with every 15 acres of bamboo forest sequestering at least 5 tons of carbon annually. This is 1.46 times that of fir trees and 1.33 times that of tropical rainforests. The ability of bamboo to naturally decompose is crucial for the environment, both nationally and globally.

However, there are challenges to overcome, such as efficient transportation. Bamboo forests are often located in remote areas with limited access, making manual harvesting costly and inefficient. Additionally, transporting large quantities of bamboo to processing facilities can be a logistical challenge. Therefore, in the coming years, it is essential to optimize production processes and increase the mechanization of bamboo harvesting, transportation, and processing to fully harness the potential of the “Replacing Plastic with Bamboo” initiative.

The Advantages of Bamboo in Environmental Conservation

1. Renewable Energy Source

There is an idiom in Chinese that likens the rapid growth of something to “spring bamboo shoots after rain.” In some southern regions, bamboo can grow over a meter in a single day, and you can even hear the cracking sound of its growth.

The fast growth of bamboo is one of its remarkable features, setting it apart from other trees.

2. Bamboo is Biodegradable

Plastics may have superior properties, surpassing bamboo in many aspects, but their most significant drawback is their poor biodegradability. Plastics can remain undegraded for centuries, posing a severe environmental challenge. When some plastic waste is incinerated, it releases toxic fumes.

In summary, the high cost and difficulty of handling plastic waste make it a less sustainable choice.

3. Room for Improvement in Bamboo-related Production Processes

Bamboo can be used to make paper, and early rural toilet paper was made from bamboo.

During the production of various fiber materials from bamboo, a significant amount of pollutants is generated.

For example, papermaking results in severe pollution.

These processes require technological innovation to reduce environmental pollution.

Understanding Bamboo Fiber: Natural vs. Chemical

First, let’s clarify that there are two types of bamboo fibers: bamboo original fiber, which is entirely natural, and bamboo pulp fiber, a chemical fiber. Bamboo serves as the raw material for the latter.

Bamboo fiber comes in two distinct forms: bamboo original fiber, a natural fiber, and bamboo pulp fiber, a chemical fiber. Although only one word differentiates them, their manufacturing processes are vastly distinct.

Bamboo Original Fiber: This fiber is directly extracted from bamboo and then spun into fabric. It belongs to the category of natural fibers, similar to common cotton fibers.

Manufacturing Process: The process involves extracting fibers directly from bamboo, typically aged around a year and a half, by separating them through mechanical action, followed by soaking and cooking to remove surface impurities. This method directly extracts fibers from bamboo, as the presence of impurities can interfere with dyeing, affect subsequent finishing processes, and reduce moisture absorption and breathability.

Bamboo Pulp Fiber: This fiber is produced by chemically dissolving bamboo into a viscous solution, which is then sprayed into long filaments using spinning machines. Its production process is similar to that of traditional viscose fibers and falls under the category of chemical fibers.

Manufacturing Process: The traditional process for bamboo pulp fiber is similar to viscose fiber production. Bamboo is first dissolved in caustic soda to produce cellulose, which is then reacted with carbon disulfide to create a solution known as cellulose sodium xanthogenate. This highly viscous solution, referred to as “viscose,” is then extruded into an acidic bath to solidify into filaments.

The feasibility of bamboo fiber as a substitute for plastic hinges on its cost-effectiveness, durability, and water resistance. If bamboo fiber can be inexpensive, durable, waterproof, and biodegradable simultaneously, its widespread adoption would become more feasible. While the concept may be ideal, the reality presents practical challenges.

Bamboo Fiber: Natural and Chemical Variants

Bamboo’s rapid growth is a distinguishing feature.

Bamboo fiber can be categorized into two types: bamboo original fiber and bamboo pulp fiber. The former is entirely natural, while the latter is a chemical fiber where bamboo serves as one of the primary materials.

In the case of bamboo pulp fiber, the typical production process involves pre-processing bamboo into bamboo charcoal powder and then adding it to a viscose spinning solution. This process continues to transform bamboo into chemical fiber. A byproduct of this process is bamboo vinegar, which can be used for purposes such as deodorization and soil insect control.

However, the widespread adoption of this production route faces challenges due to its significant wastewater output, containing a substantial amount of carbohydrates and organic compounds. This wastewater is rich in nutrients, making it an ideal environment for rapid plant growth. Therefore, ecological control strategies are being implemented, such as designing moats to consist of half grassland and half water channels, often populated with goats to control excessive aquatic vegetation.

While substances like carbohydrates, organic acids, amino acids, and flavonoids may not pose significant harm to larger organisms, the issue lies in the large-scale processing, as their introduction into water bodies or soil can be destructive. These substances can cause excessive plant growth, and within months, the vegetation can reach heights comparable to the moats' grassland portion.

The impact of this industry largely depends on its scale. Small-scale operations are relatively low in pollution, similar to individuals pouring a soft drink into a river where local anglers frequently set up fishing spots, resulting in negligible eutrophication. However, on a larger scale, it is akin to fishermen feeding fish feed at a rate of 1,000 tons a day, disrupting the ecological balance of water bodies. Additionally, some processes still employ strong alkalis, and discharging these toxic wastewaters without proper treatment can result in severe environmental consequences, including dead vegetation and polluted waterways.

A certain answer seems a bit unclear and doesn’t allow comments. In their own answer, they mention that bamboo pulp fibers are mainly used in the clothing industry. I don’t believe that the “bamboo” in the context of replacing plastic refers to bamboo pulp fibers.

You mentioned that there is pollution in the bamboo fiber production process? But it can reduce dependence on petroleum. Even if it causes the same pollution, one can address a dependency issue by itself. Which one would you choose?

Bamboo has a short growth cycle, so it doesn’t need to replace everything. Just by substituting a portion, it can reduce petroleum consumption.

Many things shouldn’t be judged solely based on the present; we should learn from the past and look ahead to the future. In the past, China made many ambitious claims at the national level, but it seems that not many were successfully implemented. Of course, rushing to achieve something all at once is also problematic. You need to build a solid foundation first.

Don’t bother with those antics again, like mixing starch and calcium carbonate into polyethylene, even if it’s biodegradable, just like the old days.

“Bamboo for Plastic” Main Product Directory (2023 Edition) [1]

“Bamboo for Plastic” refers to the process and activity of replacing plastic products with bamboo-based products, primarily including full bamboo products and bamboo-based composites to fully or partially replace plastic products.

I. Daily Use Category

1. Bamboo Outer Shell

Replace plastic outer shells of related electronic products, clothing accessories, etc., with bamboo outer shells, such as bamboo phone cases, bamboo speaker cases, bamboo buttons, etc.

2. Bamboo Stationery

Replace corresponding plastic office supplies with bamboo stationery, including bamboo penholders, bamboo-covered pens, bamboo mice, bamboo keyboards, etc.

3. Bamboo Personal Care Products

Replace corresponding plastic products with bamboo handle toothbrushes, bamboo cups, and other bamboo personal care products.

4. Bamboo Furniture

Replace corresponding plastic products with bamboo lamps, bamboo furniture, bamboo desks and chairs, bamboo storage boxes, bamboo shoe racks, and more.

5. Disposable Bamboo Tableware

Replace disposable plastic products used in the catering industry with disposable bamboo tableware, including bamboo straws, bamboo fiber lunch boxes, bamboo chopsticks, bamboo knives, forks, spoons, bamboo toothpicks, bamboo stirring sticks, etc.

6. Durable Bamboo Dining Utensils

Replace corresponding plastic products with bamboo bowls, bamboo dinner plates, bamboo cutting boards, bamboo tea sets, and other durable bamboo dining utensils.

7. Bamboo Biodegradable Bags

Replace plastic bags commonly used in daily life with bamboo biodegradable bags.

II. Industrial Production Category

8. Bamboo-Wrapped Composite Materials

Replace relevant plastic products used in areas such as municipal services, water resources, transportation, and construction with bamboo-wrapped composite materials.

9. Bamboo Splash Water Filling

Replace plastic splash water filling materials in power plants, steel plants, chemical plants, and cooling towers with bamboo splash water filling.

10. Bamboo Vehicle Interior Products

Replace interior plastic decorations in automobiles, trains, high-speed trains, and other vehicles with bamboo interior products.

11. Bamboo Packaging Materials

Replace corresponding plastic products with packaging bags, packaging boxes, bamboo pallets, bamboo fiber cushioning materials, bamboo baskets, etc., made from different bamboo units.

12. Bamboo Base Materials

Replace plastic base materials, such as container bottoms, with bamboo base materials.

III. Building Materials Category

13. Bamboo-Wrapped Composite Material Pipes

Replace plastic pipes used in water resources, municipal services, and telecommunications with bamboo-wrapped composite pipes and bamboo-wrapped pipe galleries made from bamboo-wrapped composite materials.

14. Bamboo Panel Materials

Replace plastic products in building materials with bamboo panel materials, including bamboo flat panels, bamboo reconstituted panels, and bamboo-wood composite panels used for structural purposes.

15. Bamboo Decorative Materials

Replace plastic products in construction and decoration materials with bamboo materials, including bamboo floors, wall panels, doors, windows, partitions, and more.

16. Bamboo Fiber Composite Materials

Replace relevant plastic products in construction, decoration, and furniture with bamboo-based fiber composite materials.

17. Bamboo Grating

Bamboo grating made from bamboo-based materials can replace plastic grating used in various fields such as crop shelters, outdoor fencing, slope protection, road foundation reinforcement, and soft ground reinforcement in water facilities.

When I see this kind of question now, my first reaction is, which Zhang Huizi is trying to make money again?

Currently, the top two highly upvoted answers have not grasped the concept of “substituting bamboo for plastic” and have started to produce empty content.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has issued a very detailed appendix in the “Three-Year Action Plan for Accelerating the Development of ‘Substituting Bamboo for Plastic.'”

Anyone who has taken a brief look at this plan knows what it aims to achieve.

First time hearing about this. My initial impression is:

  1. It seems to be an environmentally friendly project.
  2. If it involves mass production using bamboo, the cost might be significantly higher.
  3. The number of plastic products that can be replaced with bamboo is likely quite limited. At least PVC pipes for sewage wouldn’t work…

After reading the original text, it seems absurd. Are we going back to the era of massive steel production?

Surprisingly, there are many confident responses in the comments section, suggesting that it could be feasible.

Our company specializes in producing PBAT and PBS, which are biodegradable plastics primarily used for everyday items such as food containers and shopping bags. We are also currently preparing to expand into the production of biodegradable medical supplies.

Next to my hometown, there is a paper mill that uses bamboo pulp, paper weaving, and some fibrous waste materials. The pollution there is even more severe, with the mill secretly discharging waste into the river. The water is pale green, contaminated with various forms of turbid garbage.

I believe that biodegradability is a significant trend and represents a growth opportunity within the existing economy. It is more environmentally friendly compared to bamboo.

I seem to have seen the impact of plastic bags on the environment again, as I recall from the last proposal. Besides buying groceries, the previously free plastic bags for shopping are now provided for a fee. Apart from making us spend more money on plastic bags, I haven’t noticed any significant changes.

Has the national environmental situation improved? Or has the use of plastic bags decreased?

So, replacing plastic with bamboo, aside from the increase in costs and consumer prices, what is its real significance?

Another Waste Sorting?