Bamboo an environment-friendly substitute for plastic

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) – Humans are in perpetual pursuit of ways to make their lives more comfortable and the need seems endless. But, unfortunately, some of the convenient items that we use for just a few minutes create a decades-long problem.

Plastic bags and bottles are part of our everyday life. But do we ever stop to consider how many plastic bags and bottles we buy every day and what happens to them? How many will we use during the course of our life? In fact, these things will survive longer than we do and our rubbish will become part of our children’s lives.

Technologically undeveloped places like Laos will soon have a huge and insurmountable problem with plastic waste as there are no facilities to reuse or recycle these items.

The government and some private groups have tried to encourage their reuse and urged people not to use plastic in a bid to lessen the devastating impact on the environment.

Aqua De Bamboo, a small company based in Luang Prabang, Laos, has begun making drinking water containers and cups out of bamboo and stainless steel, hoping to curb the one-time use of plastic bottles.

Khamlec Panyakeo shows one of the containers while travelling in Huaphan. PHOTO: VIENTIANE TIMES

The containers can keep water hot or warm for up to six hours and are easy to clean. The stainless steel interior eliminates concerns about the chemicals used in the production process leaking into the liquid. It also makes them very low maintenance.

They have sold more than 500 of the carefully crafted bamboo bottles to buyers in Germany, and companies in Japan and Singapore have ordered some to check out the quality.

This artisanal product is the brainchild of the owner and product designer of Aqua De Bamboo Khamlec Panyakeo.

Khamlec and his German products technician Robert Lutz wanted to do something that was related to tourism and was also environmentally friendly.

Working as a German and Swiss language tour guide, he got the idea while he was travelling around and met up with people involved in the travel industry and import/export business who were trying to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic.

Inspired by what he learnt, Khamlec decided to do something beneficial that would make use of natural materials found in Laos.

The “bio bamboo” bottle was his first product. His main retail outlet is in the morning market in Luang Prabang. The containers can also be purchased at the Luang Prabang Textile Museum, and Khamlec sells some to hotels and travel agencies in the province. Every day the workshop in Luang Prabang produces 20 bottles.

The bottles come in three sizes – the largest holds 500ml, the next size holds 450ml, and the smallest one contains 280ml. The 500ml size costs USD15.

Khamlec said there are about 44 types of bamboo in Laos and he uses a kind that grows naturally and produces shoots that people regularly collect and eat.

“Bamboo is easy to find in Laos, especially in the north and south of the country. People have tried to make products using this wood but it often contains a beetle that eats away at the wood so it’s impossible to sell them in other countries,” Khamlec said.

He and his friend looked at the type of processing methods that would be accepted by overseas markets. They also bought stainless steel from Germany with which to line the interior and which had a periodic performance review (PPR) quality guarantee.

Good bamboo can be harvested only twice a year in January or February, but the perfect time is after the end of the rainy season in September or October, when the bamboo contains the right amount of water.

“We can only use bamboo that’s two years old because anything younger won’t be strong enough and more mature wood is too firm and can’t be processed properly,” Khamlec said.

The bamboo harvest area is on the edge of Nga district in Oudomxay province, on the border with Luang Prabang.

The containers are made by villagers, who are pleased to earn income from the work. They first cut the bamboo and then place the stems in muddy water for a week, after which they dry them for a day before sending them to the workshop in Luang Prabang.

The end product is plastic free, durable, and aesthetically pleasing.

“Currently we are working with local communities to produce accessories for our drinking vessels. Our long-term goal is to set up the design, production and sale of bamboo thermos flasks, mugs and glasses in and around Luang Prabang,” Khamlec said.

Aqua De Bamboo also makes stainless steel coffee and tea cups, and some souvenirs.

Compared to other types of bottle, the bio bottles are quite expensive but the quality is good. They are extremely durable and the production process provides local people with work.

It’s important to use products that reduce the consumption of single-use plastic items. And people need to be educated about the urgent need to cut their use of plastic, especially throw-away things.

Some people are prepared to take this matter seriously and change their ways, but most people aren’t interested. It can only work if people make an effort and introduce changes in their daily life. We can turn things around if we start right now.