Bamboo as a Flooring Material: What You Need to Know
In recent decades, the push for eco-friendly, sustainable products has contributed to big changes in the home design industry. As people grow more aware about the way they are affecting the environment, “green” products have climbed from fads to standards offered by most major brands. Bamboo flooring is one of the most popular of these "green" home trends in the industry, with more and more homes installing it every year.
However, many environmentalists are not convinced that bamboo is truly as "green" as it is purported to be. There is solid evidence that bamboo is a truly sustainable material. It grows quickly, matures in just three years, and requires no re-planting. Yet, when experts take a closer look, the benefits of bamboo flooring seems less impressive because of the less-than-sustainable methods and features used in the manufacturing of bamboo floors. Let's break it down.
One of the key difficulties surrounding the sustainability of bamboo floors is that the popularity of the material has created intense demand for the plant. The high demand is being answered by the excessive leveling of beautiful natural forestlands in China, Vietnam, and other East-Asian countries. This endangers wildlife habitats, indigenous villages, and has bio-diverse consequences. In addition to the razing of forestland, demand has also created an increase in the cultivation of bamboo forests, cutting off native plants from being allowed to grow and thrive as they should.
Another method sometimes implemented to increase the supply of bamboo is growth hormones and pesticides. These are fed to the plants to make them grow faster and taller. These chemicals do not meet the international standards for organic materials, and many cause run-off that hurts the surrounding land. Bamboo is not a regulated product, so it has no standard to monitor the chemicals used in its farming. Unfortunately, the methods of use are not often disclosed by companies, so anyone purchasing bamboo runs the risk of supporting questionable planting practices
One of the main advertising schemes of companies that offer bamboo flooring is durability. They advertise a uniform surface that is similar to wood in appearance and strength, but won't scratch as often. It’s true that bamboo is a genuinely strong plant. Technically a grass, it is frequently bent and blown by heavy winds and has evolved a sturdy stalk that can withstand severe natural beatings. However, the flooring problem lies in its consistency.
The structure of bamboo forests create plants inconsistent in strength. Some stalks are softer in the center and have harder “knuckles,” which are the the elements on the perimeter of the clump. Many companies use only the “knuckles” when measuring the strength of their bamboo products, so it is nearly impossible to know the true integrity of the floor until it has been installed. Therefore, the durability of bamboo is deceptive. The variance in strength also results in floors that scratch in some places and not in others.
Transportation of Bamboo Floors
The long distance bamboo must travel to be installed in American homes leaves a big carbon footprint created by the bamboo flooring industry. Bamboo is generally not common to North America, but we do have native species of bamboo in the Americas, and surprisingly, even in New Jersey. While it is a versatile grass that can grow in many different types of soils, the best bamboo grows in East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. While manufacturers have explored the option of growing bamboo in different areas, primarily in the south and southeastern U.S., large scale cultivation is simply not practical yet. This creates a travel issue, but also an issue of time. The expense of Asian bamboo floors can be extreme. Bamboo floors are eco-friendly options that are only viable for a select few, given its lengthy import process.
Bamboo Floor Treatments
The way that bamboo is treated after it's harvested and shipped can affect how much it adheres to “green” standards. Because bamboo does not grow as a single plant, like a tree, the coloration isn’t always uniform. To create a more uniform appearance, chemical washes and dyes are often applied before it’s ready to be sold. Formaldehyde is a common choice for many distributors, who also use a heating process that makes bamboo fibers weaker.
These chemicals can release toxins in whatever environment the bamboo is finally installed, affecting the quality of air in those homes. It is hard to find companies that do not use these processes. If you are able to, the cost is typically much higher, which ultimately drives homeowners to more cost-effective, unsustainable bamboo floor options.
Without an organization to regulate the expanding market of bamboo flooring, it is nearly impossible to know if the binders being used by manufacturers are truly "green." Though bamboo is a fascinating natural resource, the manufacturers that distribute it often use processes that diminish its eco-friendly nature. As with any material, the consumer must weigh both sides of the argument as they choose which materials to use when laying their new floor.
Images used with permission, courtesy of www.bigstock.com and www.dreamstime.com