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Bamboo: Harvesting Australia’s Secret Native Resource

The market size of engineered bamboo within the Asia Pacific region is set to reach US$ 40.7 Bn by 2031.

As Australian native forestry declines and demand for timber skyrockets, the necessity for alternative building materials will continue to grow. 

According to a new ad campaign by Forestry and Wood Products Australia, everything is ticking along just nicely in the world of wood.

The campaign, titled ‘The Ultimate Renewable’ promotes the ‘sustainability and environmental advantages of Australia’s forest and wood products industry’.

Celebrity builder Adam Dovile appears in the commercial and confidently delivers the key message:

When trees are harvested for today, 

they’re regrown for tomorrow, 

that’s why wood is the ultimate renewable.

It’s a convincing sales pitch…designed to allay any fears or negativity associated with our timber industries. But is wood really in such a healthy position?

As of 2022, only 4300 acres had been planted which is little more than 1% of the promised supply.

The Timber Shortage – A Quick Snapshot

In a submission to the NSW Legislative Council in June 2021, Forestry Australia stated that we were: 

Heading for a timber supply crisis. We are now paying a huge price for under-investing in new softwood plantations and reducing the log supply from our native forests

In August of this year, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry reported that:

Australia’s total plantation area continues to decline and is currently at its smallest area since 2003-04, due to the ongoing conversion of hardwood plantations to other land uses. The softwood plantation estate has been stable for more than 20 years.

There have been some (half-hearted) efforts to accelerate plantation growth, such as the 2018 promise by the Morrison government to plant a billion trees across 400,000 hectares by 2030. As of 2022, only 4300 acres had been planted which is little more than 1% of the promised supply.

Why Bamboo is truly the ‘Ultimate Renewable’

Due to Australia’s rising population, measured on a per capita basis, the softwood plantation estate declined 13.1% over the decade to 2016/2017 and as the population continues to grow this gap widens. 

Softwood is used primarily for lightweight timber framing for housing. The Albanese government has pledged billions to build 1.2 million new homes across the country.

Currently, to make up for any building material shortfall for housing, Australia must rely on two alternatives- imported timber or steel framing. However, both are considered unsustainable options.

A third option – Bamboo –  has a fast and renewable harvest cycle that will help with timber shortages. Bamboo is also being celebrated for its potential in the mitigation of climate change and can sequester up to 4 times more carbon than trees.

The Harvest Cycle Explained

400,000 hectares of bamboo will produce 500 million tonnes of raw material.

Timber can renew every 20-60 years depending on whether you are planting softwood or hardwood timber. 

Softwood, such as Radiata Pine, takes between 20-30 years from seedling to harvest. 

Hardwood, such as our native Eucalyptus takes between 50-60 years.

To paint an even more compelling picture, consider the following…

Over 30 years:

400,000 hectares of softwood produce 14.25 million tonnes of raw material.

For the same period: 

400,000 hectares of bamboo will produce 500 million tonnes of raw material.

Bamboo will provide abundance in a sector known for its scarcity. 

The emerging engineered and mass timber industries within Australia will also benefit from bamboo as bamboo and timber can be harvested and engineered together in a symbiotic relationship.

Bamboo and timber can be harvested and engineered together in a symbiotic relationship.

Timber’s established infrastructure, sawmills and production facilities will provide bamboo with an opportunity to go mainstream and Timber’s previous investment will not go unused. 


Misconceptions about bamboo

One of the main challenges in building a local industry is overcoming outdated misconceptions associated with bamboo.

The questions that get asked again and again are:

Isn’t bamboo invasive and uncontrollable? 

Is bamboo native to Australia? 

Won’t bamboo destroy our forests?

To answer these questions we need to understand that there are over 1000 species of bamboo. Different species are harvested for different uses. Some species are used for more decorative purposes, such as shading in a garden. Other species are used to make furniture. 

Just like trees vary in species, so do bamboos; bamboo isn’t just one kind.

Not all species are suitable for all environments and climates. Different species thrive within different regions.

It is much the same in the world of timber. Different species of timber are planted strategically to ensure that trees do not disrupt biodiversity.

It is also important to note that there are two sub-species of bamboo- Running and Clumping Bamboo. There are 3 species of clumping bamboo that are native to Australia and live in harmony with their local environment, without being invasive.

There are 3 species of clumping bamboo that are native to Australia.

On a recent trip to visit Australia’s largest commercial bamboo plantation at Belli Park on the Sunshine Coast, it was amazing to see bamboo growing and thriving alongside eucalyptus trees. These plantations have existed for 30 years and have only enhanced biodiversity.

Bamboo growing and thriving alongside eucalyptus trees in Belli Park on the Sunshine Coast.

So Is Australian Wood The Ultimate Renewable? 

Well…it could be. 

A more important question is whether we are open to driving innovation in order to develop more sustainable and regenerative materials.

We need to emulate other industries that have revolutionised themselves through the development of new perspectives. Think LED technology, where scientists, government bodies, and designers worked together, fueled by the need for energy efficiency – to erase the incandescent lightbulb.

The forestry industry needs to be open to a similar approach whereby all interested parties work together to solve building material shortages so that we can reduce our reliance on unsustainable practices.

Australian consumers, governments, scientists, academics and associated industries will also have to acknowledge that our own native bamboo species can actually deliver on the promises made by our forestry industry. 

Bamboo can spark a revolution as Australia’s next truly renewable resource

Belli Park provides proof that bamboo coexists without threatening Australia’s native flora:

Jennifer Snyders

BScArch | CEO

House of Bamboo

Read the article by Jennifer Snyders, BScArch | CEO House of Bamboo on LinkedIn.

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