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See Inside Earth 3.0 - Population & Sustainability

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?

The hardness of bamboo flooring and plywood depends on the maturity of the plant when it was harvested—most experts say the ideal age is five to six years—and the nuances of the manufacturing process. Some floors are softer than a typical hardwood floor, but others are much harder; Smith & Fong’s sturdiest bamboo floor is almost three times harder than oak.

So it’s no surprise that opinions run the gamut. “I’d have an extremely hard time recommending it,” says Kevin Stack, president of Northeast Natural Homes in Syracuse, N.Y., and a green building ­consultant. When Stack’s company installed a bamboo floor in a medical facility, taking care to pick a type that advertised an appropriate hardness, “everything went great until the occupant moved in,” he says. “The floor got trashed within the first three days.”

Variety notwithstanding, bamboo flooring and plywood (the latter is used for furniture and cabinetry) have gained a reputation for both beauty and environmental virtue. The material now accounts for about 5 percent of the wholesale “wood” flooring market. It appears in suburban homes, federal buildings, posh conference centers, restaurants, even schools, gaining high marks. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., recognized for its many “green” features, has bamboo ceiling tiles and about 7,000 square feet of bamboo flooring. “We’ve had over a million people on it—strollers, high heels, wheelchairs, you name it—and it’s held up great,” says Debbie Shock, director of operations and facilities. “I think it’s done extremely well for what it’s been through.”

Growth Industry
Bamboo product manufacturers like to brag about the beauty and durability of their wares, but they are especially proud of their environmental bona fides. “By supporting the use of this beautiful and versatile material as a complete wood replacement, we are all helping to keep the world a greener place!” trumpets the Bamboo Hardwoods Web site.

According to its supporters, bamboo’s fast growth means it sequesters more carbon than slower-growing trees, thus qualifying the flooring and plywood for a “rapidly renewable” materials accreditation under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system [see “MisLEEDing?” by Daniel Brook; Scientific American Earth 3.0, Vol. 18, No. 4; 2008]. Bamboo can be cultivated with little to no fertilizer, pesticides, heavy harvesting machinery or irrigation, and bamboo root systems can protect steep banks from erosion.

Reality, as usual, is more complex. “Any time we can produce a building material out of sunlight, water, air, things like that, we’re way ahead of the game,” emphasizes Alex Wilson, president and executive editor of BuildingGreen in Brattleboro, Vt., whose publications are widely considered the Consumer Reports of the green building world. But, he adds, “we don’t really know a lot about the practices used to grow it. That’s not to say they’re necessarily bad—they may be pretty good in terms of low chemical inputs and so forth—but we haven’t been able to learn much about them.”

Bamboo cultivation has boomed in Asia over the past two decades, and the amount of moso produced in China has more than doubled since 2000. Chinese bamboo generally grows on small, family-owned plots, some of which have been farmed for centuries. “Bamboo is one of the best opportunities farmers have in most of rural China,” says Manuel Ruiz-Pérez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid who has studied bamboo alongside Chinese scientists for the past 15 years.

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