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Bamboo Boom: Is This Material for You?

It's not just for tiki torches anymore, but does this wood substitute really make for greener floors, clothing and other products?



CREATIV STUDIO HEINEMANN/GETTY IMAGES

Daniel Smith remembers when he first tried to sell a bamboo floor. The San Francisco entrepreneur thought his woodlike product was attractive and durable, but when he took samples to a Dallas trade show in 1994, the reaction wasn’t quite what he had hoped for. No one believed the plant’s round stalks—then most familiar in the U.S. as the stuff of backyard torches—could be turned into a smooth, lasting floor.

“One architect said to me, ‘I appreciate that you’re at the cutting edge of design and development, but I don’t want to be cut by that edge,” Smith says.

Smith was accustomed to doubts about bamboo. He had spent several years in Taiwan during the early 1980s studying Mandarin Chinese and learning the art of working with laminated bamboo strips. When he returned to the Bay Area, he loaded an orange Volkswagen Squareback with his bamboo art—picture frames and gift boxes—and started visiting local galleries, persisting for an entire year until he made his first sale. Smith later sold elegant bamboo boxes and briefcases to art galleries and museums throughout the country.

So when Smith decided to expand his business to include bamboo flooring and plywood, he was patient. He made a few small sales and eventually installed a demonstration floor in a San Francisco gallery. Smith and his then business partner James Fong invested in a container of flooring and converted a tea-processing facility in east-central China into a manufacturing plant. Smith & Fong Company’s sales have grown an average of 26 percent a year for the past decade, and the firm now offers products ranging from plywood for kitchen cabinets to flooring for basketball courts.

Because bamboo plants grow swiftly and are purported to require little fertilizer, water and pesticides, many companies now market bamboo as an environmentally friendly material. In addition to flooring and plywood, it is made into fabric—for shirts, socks, towels, even diapers. Enthusiasts can find bicycles, skateboards and laptop computer shells. And the market is no longer boutique: the flooring is available at Home Depot, and bamboo-blend bathrobes can be found at L.L.Bean—both at prices competitive with more familiar materials. In a struggling economy, many bamboo products remain popular.

But bamboo grows halfway around the world, so its journey to North American consumers has a sizable carbon footprint. And product manufacturing is not as “natural” as some of its champions claim. How well do bamboo’s green credentials hold up under scrutiny?

Supergrass
Part of the grass family, some 1,400 species of bamboo grow in a variety of climates and habitats. But most products are made from moso bamboo, which is cultivated in China and elsewhere in Asia. The fastest-growing plant on earth, bamboo can shoot up as much as three feet in a single day, and moso stems can reach 75 feet high and seven inches across—making Chinese bamboo farms feel more like forests than fields.

Unlike tree logs, the hollow, tubular stalks can’t simply be sawed and finished into planks. The most common strategy is to slice the stalks into narrow strips, plane them flat and boil them to remove pest-attracting starches. Manufacturers then dry the strips in kilns, glue them together in flat bundles, subject those to heat and pressure, and finally mill and finish the bundles into conventionally shaped flooring planks or plywood sheets. (Shreds of bamboo can also be soaked in adhesive and pressed into blocks or panels.) Some flooring and plywood retain their original blond color, some are steamed to a darker shade and some are dyed.

Bamboo products vary widely in durability and price. “People believe that bamboo flooring is a meaningful descriptor,” says Douglas Lewis, founder of the Seattle-based company Bamboo Hardwoods. But judging bamboo floors by a single experience, he says, “is like saying, ‘My car doesn’t work, so I’m going to criticize transportation.’ ”

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