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Bamboo Flooring: Is It Worth The Hype?

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Sep 3, 2020

Consumers across the United States and the world are continually developing their environmental awareness. With this, companies are quick to discover that billing themselves as "green" or "environmentally friendly" is an excellent strategy for growth and increasing profit and market share. Unfortunately, the problem is that we, as consumers, rarely hear the entire story and are subject to falling victim to greenwashing. For example, a cork flooring company might advertise that their product is manufactured from the outer part of an old-growth tree and will regenerate and continue to sequester carbon for hundreds of years. But, that company would certainly not publicize nor mention the large embodied energy footprint associated with shipping a relatively heavy product from Portugal to California.

The Rising Popularity of Bamboo

In recent years, bamboo has received enormous hype and exposure as a sustainable and environmentally friendly home and construction alternative. This grass species, which originated in Asia and Africa's humid and tropical regions, has long been used in vernacular architecture in many different parts of the world. Today, you can find bamboo in a wide range of home products, including bamboo flooring, kitchenware, household linens and clothing, and even a plywood alternative. While there are certainly sustainability advantages that come with bamboo flooring, we think it is essential that homeowners also hear the "other side of the story" to make an educated decision about the products you purchase for your house.

Later, we will look at some of the detrimental environmental effects of bamboo that are sometimes concealed from end consumers. First, we will offer a quick rundown of some of the sustainability benefits and ecosystem services that bamboo offers.

bamboo forest
Bamboo Forest. Photo Credit: Daniel Klein.

The Sustainability Benefits of Bamboo

Is Bamboo Is Easy to Grow?

Bamboo, as a crop, doesn't require any petrochemical fertilizers or pesticides. It also has low water/irrigation requirements. Once established on a plantation, bamboo can grow as much as three and a half feet per day. Bamboo is the fastest growing land plant globally and can grow as much as 1,000 times as fast as typical hardwood tree species.

Is Bamboo a Proven Building Material?

Bamboo has been used for hundreds of years as structural support for several story buildings. Bamboo grows to full height in just one growing season, when it can but harvested into pulp, or it can be left to grow to full maturity in four to eight years.

According to Drawdown, a book by Paul Hawken on potential carbon sequestration strategies, he states that bamboo's compressive strength is akin to that of concrete. Its tensile strength is similar to steel.

Mini Motives Bamboo Flooring
Bamboo Flooring. Photo Credit: Mini Motives

Does Bamboo Have Ecological Benefits

Besides being extremely strong and quick to grow, bamboo also offers important ecosystem services. Due to its fast growth rate, bamboo can sequester an enormous amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It can, therefore, play a role in the fight against global climate change.

Bamboo has a carbon sequestration rate of 2.9 tons of carbon per acre annually. They also say that where bamboo can be substituted for aluminum, concrete, plastic, or steel, further emissions can be avoided.

Is Bamboo Energy Intensive?

It takes a lot of energy to make and ship it. Despite these sustainability advantages, bamboo products also have some serious downsides that need to be discussed and understood. First and foremost, the vast majority of bamboo grown for products used by the home and construction industries comes from Southeast Asia. In years past, a rural family might have cut down a small stand of bamboo growing in their back yard to use as the structural beams for their adobe home. Today, industrialized bamboo products come with an enormous embodied energy footprint.

Is Bamboo Manufacturing Environmentally Friendly?

Bamboo fabrics manufactured for clothing, curtains, and other textiles, the hard bamboo stalk must be chemically dissolved. This process creates a toxic liquid that contains sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide. These chemicals allow companies to use the cellulose strands of bamboo to turn them into bamboo-based rayon or viscose fabrics. These harsh chemicals can potentially cause environmental damage to waterways while also leaching harmful gasses into the atmosphere.

bamboo flooring Teragren
Bamboo Flooring. Photo Credit: Teragren

How to Decide if Bamboo is Right for Your Home? 

Perhaps you are thinking about pulling out your old carpets and replacing them with elegant new bamboo flooring. Or, maybe you want to redo your kitchen with all-bamboo cabinetry filled out with bamboo kitchenware. Then, here are a couple of suggestions to make the most sustainable choice.

As we mentioned, the vast majority of bamboo for the home and construction industries is sourced from Asia (and, to a lesser extent, from Latin America). Fortunately, for those of us in North America, bamboo can be sustainably grown in the United States. In fact, in many parts of the Southeast United States, including states like Alabama and Florida, bamboo is a promising crop for farmers. According to one analysis, bamboo farming in the Southeast can allow small farmers to cull 25% to 33% of a standing crop each year. This analysis found that this method would lead to a harvest that could stretch to an astounding 50 years or more before replanting is necessary. This near-perpetual harvest would mean that the cost of goods sold could decline each year. We agree - this is tempting math for potential producers!

The bamboo industry in the United States is still in its initial stages. So, in the coming years, we should see more sustainable bamboo products sourced from bamboo grown in the US. For example, Resource Fiber, based out of Alabama, currently operates the biggest commercial bamboo nursery in the US and has built a manufacturing plant. They have several developed products, including bamboo nail laminated timbers and bamboo biocomposite decking, available in 2021. Purchasing bamboo products grown and manufactured in the Western World will drastically reduce the embodied energy footprint of these products.

bamboo fiber
Photo Credit: Resource Fiber

If you can't find bamboo products sourced from North America, at the very least, search for bamboo that comes with a sustainability certification. While bamboo is an excellent crop to help farmers regenerate barren and abused lands, cutting down an old-growth forest for a quick-growing bamboo crop would be an ecological blunder. EcoPlanet Bamboo is a company that owns and develops integrated bamboo plantations and bamboo farms around the world and also has clean processing facilities for the products they make.

Another tip: search for bamboo products that are low-VOC or VOC-free and don't rely on formaldehyde as a finishing agent. Teragen Bamboo Products offers a wide variety of bamboo-based products for the home, including flooring, panels, veneers, stair treads, and risers as a more sustainable interior design alternative. This company makes all of its products with VOC emissions that are TSCA Title VI Compliant. They also comply with the California 01350 standard for indoor air quality. Both are excellent criteria for evaluating the effect of products on your health.

When it comes to bamboo-based fabrics for the home, make sure you look for material made from bamboo lyocell or Tencel. The manufacturing process for these bamboo fabrics recycles the water and chemicals required to break down bamboo into usable fibers. This way, they operate as a closed-loop cycle and avoid the potential damage that can occur when these chemicals are released into the natural environment.

Bamboo Flooring Fabcab
Bamboo Flooring. Photo Credit: Fabcab

Bamboo is a unique design aesthetic. If you like the look and feel, it's an overall positive choice for your home—especially if you follow the guidelines above for choosing a better type of bamboo product.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-11-22T01:44:02+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.