The CEO of one of China’s most innovative companies is using bamboo to combat plastic waste.
In recent years, single-use plastic waste has been hitting the headlines. As a natural, fast-growing, and versatile resource, bamboo has garnered increasing interest from companies looking to create biodegradable plastic alternatives. In its 2019 report, INBAR showed how bamboo could be a critical part of a more circular economy, as a substitute for both single-use and durable plastics.
China-based company Rui Bamboo is one of the companies stepping up to supply this new gap in the market. For Wang Jianzhong, Rui Bamboo’s CEO, bamboo ‘plastic’ is old news. “My company has been producing items for several decades. Our researchers are constantly finding ways to make stronger, more durable products.”
In fact, Rui Bamboo has been experimenting with ways to use bamboo since 2006. Located in Sichuan province, China, Wang’s company produces a wide range of bamboo tableware, including single-use food packaging products: plates, cups, cutlery and containers.
Importantly, Rui Bamboo’s products uses starch, rather than artificial resins and chemicals, as a binder, meaning that the final items are fully recyclable. The products are fit for use in microwaves, ovens and refrigerators, and at the end of their live can be composted, or recovered to make new products, such as egg trays and paper packaging.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current global focus on plastic waste, business is booming. Rui Bamboo currently creates around 200 million products a year, using some 10,000 tons of bamboo. Based on current demand, it believes output could double in 2020. The company is now in discussions with Air China to substitute their plastic cutlery for bamboo on international flights, and is planning to expand its product line and output. “According to our annual analyses, there is a big market”, says Wang, adding that the new bans on single-use plastics in many countries—most recently, China, which joins the European Union in its ban on a number of plastic items—will be good for business. In 2019 alone, the company exported products to Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, India, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.
Rui Bamboo is based in Zhongxian, a rural part of China’s Sichuan province where bamboo is an integral feature of local life. Much of the area is thickly forested with bamboo, and the plant is already a part of local government schemes to stabilise soil along the Yangtze river. Rui Bamboo contributes to thousands of local farmers’ incomes, sourcing bamboo from some 40,000 hectares of forests and plantations. With the company’s support, many farmers have set up equipment in their homes, enabling them to convert bamboo poles into chips for an increased price (one ton of bamboo chips earns RMB 1000, as opposed to RMB 600 for one ton of bamboo poles).
Despite its potential to capture a huge market, Wang says there are a number of obstacles to scaling up Rui Bamboo’s success. Government support is key. Bamboo enterprises “need governments to create more supportive policies for enterprises like us that promote natural products.” This includes promoting bamboo products over non-recyclable or emissions-intensive alternatives, as well as developing standards to ensure product quality. Finally, government support can help to weed out those companies that greenwash products: “There are so many types of product which call themselves ‘eco-friendly’, but aren’t.”
Companies can also help each other. Wang believes that bamboo companies have a duty to support each other in raising the bar for their products. “We need to talk about new technologies, new product ideas, and how to make them.”
Despite these obstacles, Wang firmly believes bamboo makes sense as a replacement for plastic. “There are six million hectares of bamboo in China alone. We must make use of it.”
Rui Bamboo’s product range can be found here.
INBAR’s most recent Policy Synthesis Report, about bamboo’s role in the circular economy, can be downloaded from here.
INBAR visited Rui Bamboo as part of its work on the TRADE HUB project with the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Find out more about the project here.