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12th January 2015

EcoPlanet Bamboo eyes future as sustainable timber heavyweight

A US company is tackling deforestation and creating jobs by providing a sustainable and profitable alternative to felling old growth forests

By Will Nichols

"People think bamboo is a joke," says Troy Wiseman, chief executive and co-founder of EcoPlanet Bamboo. But the strides his company has made in commercialising the quick-growing grass as a sustainable means of tackling deforestation and resource shortages show bamboo could yet become a serious business.

Serial entrepreneur Wiseman co-founded EcoPlanet in 2010 to "solve the deforestation problems of the Fortune500 companies" by providing an alternative fibre for timber-based products including clothing, paper, and sanitary products that would end their reliance on trees from old growth forests.

"70 million old growth trees are cut down every year from natural boreal and tropical forests to make the clothing we wear," Wiseman says. "Companies like Marks & Spencer, H&M, Patagonia, Zara etc understand that there's a problem, that the fibre supply is getting smaller by the day, environmental regulations are getting tougher and there's no way - with the population growing - that they can wait 100 years to replant those trees. So six, seven, eight years from now there's a big problem."

In contrast, Bamboo reaches maturity within seven years and can be harvested every year after that. Moreover, it grows on marginal land, so does not compete with food production and requires very little fertiliser or water. But there was a problem - the bamboo industry has previously centred on a patchwork of small farms and, in Wiseman's words, "hippie businesses" that simply could not provide the security of supply or quality of product global companies required.

Wiseman's solution has been to industrialise the bamboo industry, starting with a $10m investment in plantations in Nicaragua and South Africa, sowing non-invasive clumping bamboo. But as a self-confessed believer in "conscientious capitalism", he was determined to ensure the new large-scale operations were sustainable and benefited the local community.

EcoPlanet subsequently delivered profits three years running while providing 500 jobs for local workers, proving that over the next decade these plantations will sequester 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and restoring thousands of acres of degraded land. In doing so, it became the first bamboo company to achieve certification from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) and started generating carbon credits under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). "Because we were the first, Rainforest Alliance etc put us through the wringer because they're going to put their name on it," Wiseman says. "We really had to earn it."

The company has now leased 50,000 acres in Ghana for its third plantation and aims to employ 2,000 people by the end of this year - primed to tap into a $10bn market likely to grow rapidly with increasing demand from retailers for more sustainable fibre-based products.

"Right now we're focused on [replacing] the old growth forest textiles like rayon and viscose, but eventually we'll go to cotton," Wiseman says. "Cotton causes deforestation and requires significantly more water per acre to grow than bamboo water heavy. If grown correctly, bamboo is a far more sustainable solution."

But his green vision also stretches further along the value chain to how the fibre is made. Company researchers have harnessed technologies to create a closed loop manufacturing system that eliminates the toxic sludge most pulp mills produce. And EcoPlanet has developed fuel products ranging from basic charcoal to more complex gasification technologies that can further benefit host communities and has attracted the attention of global energy players - a major partnership announcement is expected in May this year.

Other bamboo-based applications being developed by the company include "activated carbon" that can purify water and absorb mercury. But the World Bamboo Association suggests the material could also play a role in construction, bio-plastics, medicines and even vehicles such as ultra-light airplanes, while a report earlier this year by the Container Owner's Association (COA) found bamboo is being increasingly used for flooring in shipping containers.

The possibilities seem to be as wide as Wiseman's ambition, which suits a man who considered Steve Jobs his mentor and aims to make EcoPlanet the Apple of the timber industry. "Steve Jobs said, 'I'm not inventing the computer, I'm not inventing the phone. I'm not inventing new industries - I'm making them better'," Wiseman says. "Well that's what we're doing. We're not inventing toilet paper, but we're doing it in a way that's better, safer, and more sustainable."

And despite what people might think, that's no laughing matter.

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