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Back in black: Could charcoal be the new green?

  • Story Highlights
  • Charcoal is being touted as an eco-friendly alternative to numerous gadgets
  • White charcoal, called binchotan, could replace dehumidifiers and water purifiers
  • From quick-growing trees or branches, it's not such an environmental burden
  • Could provide financial savings for those using binchotan instead of dehumidifiers
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By Rachel Oliver for CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Modern life seems to demand that you own an endless stream of expensive and energy-sapping contraptions.

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Using charcoal doesn't have to mean deforestation if sourced sustainably.

You have machines that purify the air, that clean the water, that absorb humidity, and that keep insects at bay -- and all the time they are costing you money and costing the environment dearly.

But according to Hong Kong entrepreneur Shen Yee Fung, you don't need any of them. All you need is charcoal.

Fung is the founder of Vital Charcoal, a wholesale and retail business hidden away in the busy streets of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay shopping district. The shop's one and only product is white charcoal - otherwise known as binchotan.

Binchotan, the name given to white charcoal in Japan (which by many accounts is the country which first popularized its usage), is made by steadily steam-activating oak wood over a long period of time finally to temperatures up to and beyond 1,000 degrees Celsius.

What is ultimately created is a material which, as long as you use it the right way its proponents say, allows you to say goodbye to water filters, air purifiers, dehumidifiers, deodorizers and many other modern-day gadgets for good.

The reason is that charcoal has a vast array of cavities creating a massive surface area, which can suck up a whole host of substances that stick to its walls. According to some reports just one gram of the stuff has a surface area as big as 250 m2.

What sticks to the charcoal cavity walls can vary from mould, moisture, odor, particulates and chemicals in the air and water supply (like chlorine).

"I have about 60 kilos in my house," laughs Fung.

"It's all around my studio. I even stick a charcoal stick in my vegetable compartment to make them last longer."

Some scientific studies have also discovered that binchotan -- and specifically charcoal made from bamboo -- can even absorb electromagnetic waves that come from your TV, computers and mobile phones.

"If you place the charcoal next to the equipment it soaks up the electromagnetism," says Fung, adding: "Some of my clients stick a charcoal stick next to their mobile phones."

She is dubious however as to whether such a small amount of charcoal would actually work at all. You do need to know what you are doing, she insists. If you want to deodorize your closet you can't just throw a stick of charcoal in there and hope for the best.

"If you don't place the right amount of charcoal in the closet it doesn't work at all," Fung explains.

And she says she knows that from experience: "I was doing experiments for one and a half years before I set up this business."

Not such a burden on the environment

Charcoal may not be the first thing that comes to people's minds when thinking about environmental solutions; the word tending to bring up images of mass deforestation and air pollution, for example.

But compare a stick of oak wood charcoal to a disposable dehumidifier unit like for like, Fung says, and the former suddenly becomes much more environmentally appealing, not to mention financially rewarding.

"These small throwaway dehumidifiers, you change every week, whereas this [oak wood] charcoal lasts forever, so you don't add to the trash and you save money," Fung explains.

It becomes even more compelling she says when you look at more expensive permanent fixtures.

"Diamond water filter is $1,000," she says, referring to an Asian water filtration brand. "Two pieces of charcoal is $4."

The environmental argument for charcoal becomes even more persuasive when the source material is bamboo, the fastest growing plant on earth.

Vital Charcoal sells both oak and bamboo. Fung clearly preferring bamboo to oak wood, although her Hong Kong customers feel differently, she says.

"The bamboo comes from China and people in Hong Kong have a funny thing sometimes with Chinese products -- even if it is cheaper."

However, while oak trees take that much longer to grow back than bamboo, oak wood charcoal has a potentially limitless life span, whereas bamboo charcoal only lasts around a year (but once it's used up it makes great fertilizer, says Fung).

Increasingly companies selling these charcoal products are finding ways to harvest the source material more sustainably. Danish company A Sort of Coal, which makes oak wood charcoal says it only takes the stems and branches from the trees, and does not harm the root structure, for example.

According to Professor Jimmy Yu, Director of the Environmental Science Program at Chinese University of Hong Kong, there is no reason why charcoal cannot be a sustainable material.

"You can get charcoal from bamboo, wood, coconut shells, you don't have to cut down trees," he says.

"And you can grow bamboo quickly so it is not necessarily environmentally damaging," he says.

Charcoal has been used in day-to-day life in parts of Asia for hundreds of years.

Many believe it was to thank for the Mawangdui mummy's incredible levels of preservation, when its tomb was discovered by archaeologists in China in the early 1970's. The remains of the corpse, named Lady Dai -- and estimated to have been buried in 150 BC -- was in such good condition, when it was discovered an autopsy was even possible.

Charcoal is increasingly creeping its way back into modern life, and now even celebrities are realizing its benefits. China Daily reported recently that Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi has not only recently decked the floor of her Beijing restaurant in it; she uses it to filter the customers' water too.

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As for Fung, she sold her business last month to take care of her sick father. She feels positive about its future though -- the person she sold it to should know better than anyone if it is going to be a success.

"The new guy is a fortune teller," she laughs. "He thinks it is a good business."

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