Is bamboo flooring really green?
Bamboo can be a good alternative to hardwoods, but consumers need to know what to look for and what questions to ask suppliers.
By Karen Aho, MSN Real Estate
Bamboo is the “it” floor of the moment. The grass that looks like wood has everyone aflutter: chic designers, eco-trendy condo developers, value-conscious homeowners, as well as banks, post offices and showrooms seeking the mighty green seal of approval.
And why not? Bamboo is strong, good-looking and, above all, kind to the environment. Or is it?
First, the basics behind the eco-hype: Bamboo is a good alternative to wood because it replenishes itself quickly and on its own. When the stalks are harvested, the root system remains, protecting against runoff and sprouting new growth.
Bamboo grows like the weed it is: as much as a foot a day, reaching full height within six months and harvest strength in four years. A tree, by contrast, must be replanted and takes 20 to 120 years to mature to harvest.
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, the average American uses wood and paper products equivalent to one 100-foot, 18-inch-thick tree every year. Home-building projects account for two-thirds of that consumption.
Given the importance of trees in protecting wildlife, water and air, not to mention their near-magical countereffect on global warming, any and all conservation is indeed a good thing.
But before piling onto the bamboo eco-wagon, keep in mind that any mass-produced product in the Industrial Age comes with potential environmental and health risks. Just because bamboo is good doesn’t mean that it is always treated well during processing. The way a particular bamboo supply has been harvested, treated and delivered could knock it down a shade of green.
“The hidden cost of so much of our building materials is petroleum,” says Erika Zekos, an architectural designer. “So you might have a lovely renewable resource but it costs a great deal to get it here.”
Zekos and her husband, Derek Noble, chose dark bamboo for 600 square feet of their western Massachusetts home before learning about a lumber cooperative that’s harvesting trees in an ecologically sustainable manner just a few miles from their house. Nearly all of the commercial bamboo imported to the United States comes from China.
So although Zekos and Noble are very happy with the floors — they’re “absolutely beautiful” and are holding up well — Zekos says, “Had I done the floors today instead of three years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have made the same choice.
“If you want to truly go green, you’ve got to go local, too.”
Going for the green
Distance is not the only factor. Individual producers obviously have latitude in their methods of production, and it’s up to you to snoop them out.
Bamboo flooring earns builders a point with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. But oversight of specific bamboo producers is lacking. What the Forest Stewardship Council does for wood products, rating suppliers for sustainability practices, has yet to be established for bamboo.
“Just because bamboo can grow fast doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a green product itself,” says Dimitri Rechevskiy, a partner in Pacific Custom Flooring, a San Francisco Bay Area flooring company.
Chinese producers are not always forthcoming, but reputable suppliers might be able to answer questions about the product they’re importing or selling. Read the supplier’s Web site, or call with questions. Here are a few must-ask questions.
- Where was the bamboo grown? Did the crop displace another habitat?
Concerns are growing that the rise in demand for bamboo is leading to the destruction of other crops or forests. Nearly all of the bamboo imported to the U.S. as lumber comes from sustainable plantations in China, but it’s difficult to gather much information, says Lynn G. Clark, a botany professor at Iowa State University who specializes in bamboo. However, there is evidence that habitat destruction could be happening in South America, where people tend to live in the same mid-elevation tropics where bamboo thrives.
Are the bamboo crops small and integrated, or large and overpowering? Ask if the crops are monoculture or part of a biodiverse landscape.
“If you have just acres and acres of bamboo, then that’s not going to encourage a diverse habitat,” says Heather Gadonniex, owner of Green It Group, which advises companies on corporate social responsibility. Animals, insects, birds, plants — they all need a diverse ecosystem in order to thrive.
- Were pesticides used on the bamboo crops?
Pesticides filter into the groundwater, affecting not only the drinking supply but the food crops of people in the area. They can affect people’s health and lead to birth defects, says Gadonniex. “You really want to take a look at how the crops are grown.”
- What chemicals were used in sealing and coating?
Bamboo strips are commonly bound using a formaldehyde-based adhesive. Formaldehyde, which can be toxic at high levels, is a volatile organic compound (VOC), meaning it becomes a gas at room temperature. When products release VOCs, the process is called offgassing.
Since adhesives and coatings are used throughout the preparation of bamboo flooring, it is important that the final product be tested to ensure that it meets the Greenguard and LEED standard of no more than .05 ppm (parts per million) of formaldehyde, says Marilyn Black, founder of the Greenguard Environmental Institute, an independent nonprofit that certifies the indoor quality of products.
Make sure the supplier’s flooring is tested by a laboratory that is certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO) — specifically that the lab is ISO-17025 accredited for environmental chamber testing, Black says.
Also, several companies are advertising formaldehyde-free adhesives. Make sure the binders are VOC-free, says Gadonniex.
Stay away from the shiny boards, which indicate they’ve been slathered with aluminum oxide, says Rechevskiy. “For people who want a truly green product, that is something they would want to look into,” he says. “Make sure it’s not very glossy.”
- ‘Formaldehyde-free’: How do you know?
With the growth of the green movement, a number of the 500 bamboo producers in China are calling themselves formaldehyde-free. But are they? Ask your supplier how they ensure the product quality. Have they visited the manufacturer? Have they tested the product?
- How far is it being shipped?
This one’s pretty tough to get around with commercial bamboo, given that it’s most likely made in China. But it could be the nudge toward considering a local sustainable alternative.
Bamboo shoots are in mixed-age crops, and the stems must be individually harvested by hand, Clark says (unlike some forests that are clear-cut with machines). So although some bamboo species could likely thrive in temperate parts of the U.S., the crops are too labor-intensive to compete economically with Chinese labor costs at this point.
“Even paying for all that transportation from China, it’s been more cost-effective to pay for that than to do it here,” Clark says.
- Is the bamboo fully grown?
Bamboo really does shoot high and fast, 60 to 80 feet for some common commercial species, all in about six months, says Clark.
But that’s just the beginning. The juvenile shoot — the same diameter from birth to maturity — must bulk up against the elements. The plant creates lignin (from the Latin lignum, for wood), to harden the cells and assist in the transport of water.
It takes three to four years to reach mature density, says Clark, at which point the bamboo can be as tough as hardwoods.
An immature bamboo, meanwhile, makes for vulnerable flooring that could dent and chip easily, “and traffic will be much more visible,” says Erik Freitag, of Cali Bamboo, a supplier in Southern California.
As a floor, it’s good
So you’ve decided to go with bamboo, but can it really compare with wood? Basically, yes. Bamboo flooring isn’t soaring on its eco-friendliness alone; it is a product respected by builders. It can go wherever wood flooring can (and, like wood, it is best kept out of a steamy bathroom).
“I haven’t heard where somebody called and said this didn’t work,” says Chris Miller, of Northwest Bamboo in Portland, Ore. Here are some specs:
- Durability: If it’s aged properly, bamboo rivals oak for strength and durability. It’s also used to make furniture, cabinetry and stairs. There are even bamboo bicycles. Dark bamboo, which has been caramelized, is a little softer than the unheated, blond bamboo.
- Cost: At $1.50 or $2 a square foot, cheap bamboo is cheaper than wood. But you get what you pay for, suppliers warn. It could be improperly aged, heavily coated or come without a guarantee — all recipes for unhappiness and a lost investment.
Add a couple dollars per square foot — you’re still not surpassing the cost of wood — and ask for A or B Grade instead, says Miller.
And make sure you go through an established hardwood distributor, says Rechevskiy. An unnamed vendor might have no contact point with the factory.
“If it’s defective material, there’s really no recourse to getting any refund or any kind of support,” Rechevskiy says. “(The warranty) might cost 50 cents more a square foot, but that 50 cents covers a lot.”
- Appearance: Bamboo is underfoot in some pretty trendy homes. It looks good. But there’s also quite a bit of variety, so ask for a sample box first. Less-expensive bamboo tends to be multicolored. “A piece can have four different colors,” says Miller. “With a lower-grade bamboo, they’re not as picky about matching the pieces.”
Bamboo is available in a light honey blond, which is its natural color, or a through-and-through dark brown attained by a heating process in which the sugars in the plant essentially caramelize.
- Do it yourself: “I would never recommend that any homeowner install any flooring themselves,” says Rechevskiy. “If they don’t have a carpentry background it’s 50-50 you’re either going to ruin the floor you installed or you’re not going to. And if you do, you’ve torn up your home, and you’ve received a shoddy product in the end.”
But if you’re “really, really stubborn,” Rechevskiy says, go with a click bamboo floor, which locks together like laminate and doesn’t involve glue or nails. Ask for it at your local lumber or home-improvement store.