Tipster Brad installed a bamboo floor and says “The environmental benefits are great, but the flooring itself is awful”. We have had mixed experiences with it ourselves and decided to look more closely.
Before we look at the environmental issues, let’s look at its utility- is it all it is cracked up to be?
One of the major benefits touted by vendors is how hard and tough it is. It’s Not. The popular carbonized darker bamboos are comparable to Black Walnut, considered a soft hardwood, and the lighter natural colours test comparable to maple. (colour is achieved not by staining but by heating, and the longer it heats the softer it gets) It is like any wood floor- it is damaged by dents, scratches and the killer of all wood floors, high heels. Jazzy aluminum oxide finish or not, it is a natural material that should not be marketed as being harder or more durable than conventional wood flooring. (::Hardwoodinstaller.com)
Is Bamboo Flooring Environmentally Better?
We summarize a remarkable report by Dr. Jim Bowyer for Dovetail Partners
Bamboo flooring can be green…
There is no question that bamboo is a renewable resource- it is a grass and grows very quickly. Where oak takes 120 years to grow to maturity, bamboo can be harvested in three. It is recognized as a green material under LEED and as they said in Environmental Building News, “Environmentally, it’s hard to argue with a wood substitute that matures in three years, regenerates without need for replanting, and requires minimal fertilization or pesticides.”
From a social perspective, 6 million people in China work in bamboo and 600 million people worldwide rely on income from it.
…but it isn’t as green as it could be
However it is clear that bamboo is not necessarily being managed in a sustainable fashion. It is true that it naturally regenerates, but forests are being cleared to grow it and it is becoming a monoculture. Although it is claimed that fertilizers are not necessary, in fact they are being used to increase yield. Research quoted in the report:
“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 . . .”
Bamboo Flooring Lacks Credible Certification, For Now
Dr Bowyer points out that there is nothing comparable to FSC Certification, ensuring that the forest has been harvested in a sustainable fashion. (We note that FSC looked at this last year but have not seen any certifed bamboo yet)
Other Issues with Bamboo Flooring
• There is no Fair Trade certification, ensuring that the workers have appropriate working conditions and wages. Considering that it grows like a weed and is being manufactured by rural Chinese workers, and yet sells at prices comparable to local hardwoods, someone is making huge margins on its current trendiness. We think it should be the workers.
• Almost all bamboos have formaldehyde binders.
• It’s mostly shipped from China, which flies in the face of our obsessions with local sourcing (although there is no local source so it gets a bit of a pass here)and import substitution.
However, like any material, not all bamboos are created equal. Toronto writer David Lasker points out that certain companies, like Teragren, make a point of addressing FSC certification (or lack thereof), Formadehyde (lower than every standard extant) supporting “farmers and their families by paying fair market value for our raw materials and by encouraging proper stewardship of this valuable resource.” (Read more in Treehugger here)
Nor are all finishes the same. Canada’s K&M /Silk Road says “Laminated bamboo is hugely less toxic than your typical carpet- Guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Carpet and Rug Institute call for carpets to emit no more than 0.5 milligrams of VOCs per square meter per hour. Vancouver-based Forintek Canada Corp., a wood-products research institute, has certified K&M’s product at a virtually non-detectable .00563 milligrams.”
Nor does it all come from China. Doug Lewis established Bamboo Hardwoods, and “opted to set up his own factory in Vietnam, in part because the farmers supplying him with bamboo own their own land and thus have an incentive not to harvest the shoots prematurely. Lewis also wanted control over conditions in the factory, so he could address environmental and worker safety concerns effectively.” (buildinggreen)
Functionally, it is not intrinsically harder or better than traditional floors.
Choice of supplier is important. You can’t just pull it off the lumberyard shelf and assume that it is a green product- you have to check out the source. And you have to trust them, as there appears to be no third-party certification process.
While there are benefits accruing from using a renewable resource, until one can find an FSC or equivalent approval rating, a Fair Trade seal, formaldehyde free, it does not get five hugs from Treehugger.
Right now if we had to chose between bamboo and, say, locally cut FSC certified maple flooring, a strong case could be made that the maple is environmentally a better choice. And don’t forget Marmoleum!