Baseball is so much more than a sport; it is a culture, social medium, and integral part of history. There is no better tangible object to represent all that baseball offers than a baseball bat. Bats have changed greatly in the 182 years the game has been around, and their story has touched the lives of every fanatic. Traditionally made out of wood, ballplayers are very particular about the model of lumber they swing. Likewise, the master craftsmen behind the world’s best bats spend decades developing their bat making skills. Baseball bats are traditionally made from either ash, maple, birch, or in older times hickory. But in 2003, Pinnacle Sports’ BamBooBat company popularized a new material used to produce bats: bamboo. Originally thought of as an ideal training bat because of the incredible durability of the “wood” (it’s technically a form of grass), ballplayers are starting to see the value in using bamboo bats in games. As a baseball purist, I only used wooden bats growing up, and had several bamboo bats. I used them in numerous games, and can attest that the strength of these bats is on par with traditional woods, and the durability is unmatched. Bamboo is both cheaper and more sustainable than traditional woods, reaching harvestable maturity much sooner and having a far less potential environmental impact to cultivate. With fixed labor practices and an improved manufacturing process, bamboo bats could revolutionize the sport of baseball and pioneer a more sustainable path in an industry that desperately needs reform.
As mentioned before, baseball bats are traditionally made from woods like ash, maple, and birch. However, as new technologies emerged, manufacturers found that bats could also be made from aluminum. Aluminum bats are easier to hit with than wood, don’t break or splinter, and discharge a higher velocity upon impact. As a result, metal bats caught on in youth, amateur, and collegiate baseball. The high profit margins that metal bats bring for companies solidified the place for aluminum in America’s favorite pastime. Metal bat production involves many toxic chemicals and the components of the bats are vastly unsustainably sourced. Traditional wood bats may in some cases have environmental consequences like deforestation and the trees may take half a century to regrow, but overall the materials that go into making a wooden bat are fairly renewable and sustainable.
Bamboo is a material that largely frees athletes from having to make any of these compromises when selecting a product. Bamboo is extremely durable, cheap for both the manufacturer to produce and the consumer to buy, and replenishes quickly. Bamboo reaches harvestable maturity in just five years, whereas traditional woods can take up to fifty years. Also, currently priced bamboo bats are priced between $50-$100, whereas metal bats can be nearly $500. This promotes greater access to individuals of lower socioeconomic status, and the product’s durability makes this a long-term investment. Furthermore, bamboo requires very little water to grow and zero pesticides. This reduces environmental impact greatly, as most agricultural products utilize unsustainable amounts of both natural and artificial resources to produce.
Below I have linked two YouTube videos that detail the process of bat-making for both wood and metal baseball bats. I highly recommend watching these to get a general idea of how bats are made. Metal bats in particular are incredibly wasteful. The bats come from a single cylinder of aluminum, much of which is cut off and discarded during production. Additionally, the bat is typically fitted with a plastic cap at the end and a chemically coated rubber grip. Wooden bats also produce waste in production, but at least the waste is mostly naturally biodegradable since the materials used are mostly plant based. However, the finishing coating applied to both metal and wood bats are unfortunately both chemically based. Bamboo bat production is very similar to wood bat production, the main difference being that strips of bamboo are layered together to form the billets of the bat. Wood bats are shaped from a wooden block, but the structure of the bamboo plant does not allow for this. Aside from this, the rest of the forming process is fairly similar.
The process of making bamboo bats has the potential to be completely sustainable, but economic incentives have discouraged this goal. As bamboo bats and other products have gained popularity since the turn of the century, cultivation of the grass has increased tremendously. As a result, farmers in China have cleared vast amounts of natural forest land to make space to grow bamboo. This destroys biodiversity and many keystone species, and the burning involved releases toxic emissions into the atmosphere. Stemming from the same economic motive is farmers’ desire to use fertilizers and pesticides to encourage growth of bamboo plants, ruining the soil and increasing toxicity levels of the plant. Bamboo is quite naturally resistant to pests and disease, but nonetheless cultivators will use any chemical they can get their hands on if it produces a positive impact on net profits, and governments will do little to stop it. Bamboo has great potential to be an all-around sustainable product, but only if we hold companies accountable for their actions across the value chain.
Baseball bat making companies big and small share the same issue as the vast majority of other sports equipment companies: a lack of transparency. Bamboo bat manufacturers like Mizuno, Louisville Slugger, and Pinnacle Sports either have little to no information relating to where they source their materials. I found a common way these corporations sadly attempt to show their sustainability is through an obscure page stating that they follow the “California Transparency Supply Chain Act”. Of all the companies I have seen with this policy mentioned, it tends to be the ones without any other form of transparency that have it on their website. In my opinion, this fancy sounding act basically means that we should just take the companies’ word for it when they say they are sustainable. Countless investigations, lawsuits, and witnesses have unveiled the true reality of these companies. The sporting goods firms base their products from locations around the world like Indonesia, Iraq, Taiwan, China, and poor South American nations. These nations are notorious for manufacturing and assembling goods for large athletic companies because of how cheap the labor is. Unfortunately, this is because many laborers do not earn a living wage and face abuse on the job. I even remember as a kid seeing the “Made in …” label on the inside of my cleats and feeling distraught about the likelihood that the product was made by laborers who are underpaid and overworked in poor factory conditions. Evidence in China has revealed that the exploitation of factory line workers can cause unpleasant conditions like Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome, jeopardizing the livelihood of entire families depending on physical labor as a source of income. Since bamboo is native to and mostly grown in China, it is worrisome that basic labor standards continue to be violated in the sporting goods industry. Bamboo baseball bats have the potential to be a 3/3 planet product review, but only if the people making them are given their rights and the processes involved are reformed with greater care for the environment.