The Many Benefits Of Bamboo Wood

Remember when bamboo was mere snack food for pandas?  Recently, this highly renewable species of woody grass is being used to feed a lot more than just those adorable black and white bears.  Bamboo wood is widely touted as an eco-friendly mainstay in manufacturing a wide range of consumer products – from flooring and furniture, to houseware and clothing. But is bamboo wood really as green as its proponents suggest?  Or are we being bamboozled?

An age-old material, bamboo is a vital non-timber, non-petroleum-based resource for eco-conscious manufacturers and consumers. When compared to wood, bamboo definitely comes out ahead in the green race.  Here are some of the reasons why:

* A field of bamboo releases 35 percent more oxygen than the equivalent timber forest, contributing positively to the atmosphere’s oxygen-carbon dioxide balance.

* Certain types of bamboo can grow up to 3 feet in just one day, making it one of the earth’s fastest growing plants. As a result, bamboo is ready for harvest in just 3-5 years (as compared to the 20-100 years it takes for hardwoods to be ready). And bamboo can achieve this super-speed growth without any fertilizers or pesticides.

* The root system of the bamboo plant is not damaged during harvesting, which means bamboo never has to be replanted.

* Once harvested, bamboo can net up to twice as much fiber as pine, the fastest-growing wood crop.

* Bamboo is touted to be stronger than steel and more durable than red oak or maple wood.

Is There a Downside to Bamboo Wood?

While experts agree that the centuries-old tradition of growing bamboo is unquestionably green, some environmental advocates are worried that it’s no longer being managed in a sustainable fashion.

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Dovetail Partners, a nonprofit organization that examines the trade-offs of environmental decisions, reported in 2005 that, “Bamboo expansion has come at the expense of natural forests. … It is common practice to cut down existing trees and replace them with bamboo.”

This clear-cutting has led to an increase in forestland erosion, continues the report. Even more concerning is that while bamboo does not need fertilizers, many farmers are now turning to chemicals to super-size their results. The growing use of weed killers, fertilizers and pesticides has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the bamboo environment, concludes Dovetail Partners.

Despite some sustainability concerns, bamboo is still widely accepted as one of the world’s most eco-friendly materials. But what happens to bamboo wood once its harvested and manufactured? Is the picture still so green? Here’s a look at how three popular types of bamboo wood products measure up on the green scale.

Bamboo Flooring

Bamboo flooring is the most prolific application of bamboo wood. Since first being introduced as an alternative to hardwood floors in the early 1990s, bamboo sales have doubled even faster than the plant itself. The U.S. Green Building Council calls bamboo hardwood flooring “an ideal product … [it] is attractive and can grow anywhere.” The Sierra Club also sings bamboo’s praises.

According Darrel DeBoer, author of Bamboo Building and Culture, aesthetics and price are equally as important as the green factor when it comes to motivating consumers of bamboo wood flooring. The good news for cost-conscious consumers is that bamboo flooring runs $3 – $7 per square foot, which is comparable to the price of oak and maple hardwoods.

Yet like any product in today’s consumer-driven society, bamboo flooring is not without its drawbacks. One of the biggest concerns with bamboo wood floors is the use of highly toxic formaldehyde to bind the boards. Formaldehyde gives off gasses for the life of the product. This same issue plagues bamboo blinds, stairs, paneling and other products featuring compressed bamboo wood. A small handful of companies, such as the Washington-based Teragren, are off-setting this concern by using formaldehyde-free adhesives.

Also worrisome is that bamboo doesn’t have third-party certification for sustainable harvesting – nor has it earned Fair Trade Certification. This means that consumers have no way of knowing whether their floor came from a sustainable, harvested crop, or if the workers who manufactured it earned living wages and worked under safe conditions.

However, like Teragren’s anti-formaldehyde stance, a growing number of companies are countering qualms about bamboo harvesting and manufacturing by going above and beyond acceptable standards.


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Bamboo Hardwoods, for example, set up its factory in Vietnam rather than China, since Vietnamese farmers own their own land and therefore have an incentive not to prematurely harvest their crop.

Bottom line: Don’t assume your bamboo floor is up to green snuff until you thoroughly investigate your supplier.

Clothing and Linens

Softer than cotton, but with the drape of silk, bamboo fabric has the added benefit of being naturally antibacterial. It’s not surprising, then, that retailers from exclusive organic boutiques to big-box stores are hawking bamboo fabric wares. Consumers can find shirts, pants, hats, socks, baby clothes and even bedding made from bamboo. Major retailer Bed, Bath and Beyond, for example, now sells 230-thread count sheets made from 100 percent bamboo fiber.

Like bamboo floors, however, fabric made from bamboo isn’t entirely in the green. According to Lotus Organics, manufacturing bamboo involves bleaching and cooking the plant in a caustic lye solvent, turning it into a viscous solution. That solution is then reconstructed into a cellulose fiber, which is woven into yarn for fabric. The process can cause workers to suffer headaches and more severe neurological damage, while also polluting the environment around the manufacturing plant.

Yet all that doesn’t mean you should eschew bamboo fabric, at least not according to the National Geographic’s Green Guide blog, which writes that, “Despite the environmental shortcomings in production, bamboo still has a much lighter environmental impact than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived nylon and polyester synthetics.”

Furniture, Home Décor and Kitchenware

Bamboo is walking its way into American households – and not just across the floorboards. From modern-lined dining room tables to the Asian-inspired plates and cutlery that adorn them, bamboo wood is a top choice for eco-savvy shoppers.

For parents concerned about lead paint and Bisphenol-A, for example, bamboo plates and silverware make an ideal alternative to plastic kids’ dishes. Other bamboo kitchen products include serving bowls, trays, cutting boards and baskets. There are even disposable bamboo plates and cutlery, which biodegrade in just four to six months after disposal.

Bamboo kitchenware and home décor is produced by steaming the material to make it more malleable, which eliminates concerns about caustic chemicals like those used in manufacturing bamboo flooring and fabric. Consumers do still need to be choosey about suppliers, however, since regulation and certification issues persist.

Bamboo wood is unquestionably one the world’s greenest natural resources. Yet, as its popularity in increases, so do concerns about the eco-impact of converting this woody grass into consumable goods. Particularly problematic is the manufacturing process for bamboo flooring and fabric. Additional concerns surround the growing economic incentives for bamboo farmers to accelerate their crop with premature harvesting and chemical fertilizers. Despite these drawbacks however, bamboo remains the world’s greenest alternative to wood – and is far superior to petroleum-dependent plastic.

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Last Updated: 11/15/2017

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