For US markets, the only thing GREEN about Bamboo is its color
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 00:00

Time and again I see "eco" or "green" builders promote bamboo flooring or paneling as part of their product offering - heck, for some it seems that spray foam insulation and bamboo flooring is all that it takes to be a green builder. I'm not sure I get all of this hype over bamboo. While the primary claim is that it is a fast growing (rapidly replenished) plant, I will always remain dubious of low-impact "solutions" for our society that are primarily shipped in from the other side of the world. It's kind of like claiming that going to your neighborhood big-box store is "buying local" and in my mind is akin to green-washing. At least as far as the US market is concerned, I believe that the only thing really "green" about bamboo is its color. But then I did some follow-up research on the subject and was astonished at what I found....

Faced with the growing popularity of a product transported for thousands of miles, Dr. Jim Bowyer did a report for Dovetail Partners on Bamboo Flooring that actually studies the methods and practices of the bamboo industry and found the following:

“Recently, bamboo expansion has come at the expense of natural forests, shrubs, and low-yield mixed plantations . . . It is common practice to cut down existing trees and replace them with bamboo.”

“As forestlands tend to be in hilly and mountainous areas with steep slopes, clearcutting has resulted in an increase in erosion until the bamboo becomes fully established . . .”

“Natural forests in the vicinity of bamboo plantations have sometimes given way to bamboo as a result of deliberate efforts to replace them or because of the vigorous natural expansion of bamboo in logged over forests. This process has also had a negative impact on biodiversity.”

“The intensive management practices employed involve manual or chemical weeding and periodic tilling of the land to keep the soil clear of undergrowth. These practices increase erosion and result in single-species plantations over large areas.”

“The intensive use of chemicals (pesticides, weed killers and fertilizers) [associated with growing bamboo] also affects the environment . . .”

Clearcutting, erosion, chemicals, the negative impact on biodiversity - these practices are dubious at best. The systematic elimination of biodiveristy is one of the surest paths to the extinction of species on our planet. There are hundreds of varieties of bamboo in Asia but only a very few make great flooring so the non-desireable species are simply crowded out. Last year the international press had an article stating that "Biodiversity loss has reached alarming levels, and disappearing with it are the secrets to finding treatments for pain, infections and a wide array of ailments such as cancer...."

In the last couple of years a very few (5?) bamboo growers have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as practicing environmentally sound harvesting techniques - but these are an incredible minority of growers the world over. There also does not appear to be any Fair Trade Certification of the product - recognizing that standards are in place to ensure fair pay for the harvesting of the plant.

In response to some of these concerns recently bamboo growers have been sprouting up in the US. This has its own host of problems. Both kudzu and the eucalyptus tree were brought to this country by the railroad industry and are now considered invasive species. There are three varieties of bamboo native to the US (here primarily known as "giant cane") and none of these are presently suitable for harvesting for flooring or paneling. Encouraging the domestic introduction and propagation of a very rapidly maturing foreign plant species is something that should be considered very carefully and not approached as a bandwagon marketing opportunity.

Aside from the distance traveled from production to consumption one of the other things you should look at from a "green" perspective is durability - is the product you install going to last for a very long time? The Hardwood Installer website has a great review on the durability (hardness) of bamboo and rates it in the area of a soft hardwood. In fact the darker bamboos - who achieve darkness not by chemical treatments but by heating - are softer because of the heat treatment. Lighter colored bamboo is harder and will therefore be more durable as a flooring material. They do not get into discussion of all of the additional embodied (heat) energy required to produce the darker colored bamboos. If you are looking for a traditionally "hardwood" floor, this ain't the product for you.

As I drive amongst the vast hardwood forests of western North Carolina I am very mindful of the trees and the logging industry that this part of the country once sustained. I believe there are few things "greener" than consuming products that were grown or harvested locally and sustainably. Through sound foresting practices we can hope to eradicate the clear-cut mentality of a previous generation's loggers and work with our local environment from a more sustainable perspective. Clear cutting hardwood forests in China just so that someone in the states can have a bamboo floor is not a sustainable practice and should not be encouraged by any society (at least in North America) seeking a better way.