These days everyone is talking about bamboo. From walls to flooring, bamboo is regaled as the environmental answer to wood. Bamboo flooring is commonplace from showrooms to homes, and the building community expects that it will be used in plywood next. Just think, tomorrow your garage doors could be constructed with the renewable source.
Environmentalists love it for its quick growth and for the fact that it can be harvested without harming the environment. However, the downsides of bamboo are now being scrutinized as its popularity grows and expands throughout the world of home construction. Some of those concerns include biodiversity, soil erosion, and chemical use.
Bamboo is technically a grass and is native to South America, all parts of Asia, as well as northern Australia and areas of the southeast United States. It’s touted for its strength, hardness, and fast growth rate. For builders, bamboo has more compressive strength than concrete and the same strength-to-weight ratio as steel in tension. Also, it grows much faster than trees.
Almost all of the bamboo used in the United States is grown in China. Some of the bamboo plantations there date back hundreds of years, and most of the world’s population uses the grass in some form. Bamboo is common in housing for flooring, in construction as support poles, and in household implements like chopsticks or cutting boards. The fact of the matter is that bamboo is flourishing.
A positive aspect of bamboo is that it can be harvested without killing the plant. A decade ago farmers cleared virgin forest in order to plant their bamboo farms. The profitability of bamboo surpassed the profit of rice and other kinds of farming. This hasn’t been the case in recent years, but a bamboo plantation doesn’t have the biodiversity of a natural forest. Given its invasive nature, bamboo can also quickly take over a nearby forest.
The clearing of forest also incited concerns over soil erosion as did newly planted fields, especially on steep slopes. Researchers found, though, that planting bamboo along river banks helped decrease erosion. Once the grass was established on farms, erosion decreased there as well.
The downside to bamboo lies in its construction. Instead of being cut and used whole, like wood, bamboo is sliced into pieces and glued together. There are serious questions regarding health and safety surrounding how the bamboo is handled and the chemical components used to glue and seal it. Currently there are no standardized requirements for its construction or the glue holding it together. In fact, rates of strength and hardness vary from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on supplier, and the glue can contain formaldehyde and be harmful to the environment.
Although planting and harvesting bamboo may not impact the environment negatively, the handling of it certainly can. In six years there has been little done to ensure that it’s safe for handlers or the people that manufacture it. There is still lots of room for improvement and debate of bamboo.
Bamboo’s environmental benefits arise largely out of its ability to grow and spread quickly in some cases three to four feet per day without the need for fertilizers, pesticides or much water.
A bamboo grove also releases some 35 percent more oxygen into the air than a similar-sized stand of trees, and it matures (and can be replanted) within seven years (compared to 30-50 years for a stand of trees), helping to improve soil conditions and prevent erosion along the way. Bamboo is so fast-growing that it can yield 20 times more timber than trees on the same area. There are some 1,000 different species of bamboo growing in very diverse climates throughout the world, including the southeastern United States.
Today, heightened consumer environmental awareness has given sales of bamboo clothing, flooring, building materials and other items a huge boost.
As an attractive and sturdy alternative to hardwood flooring, bamboo flooring is tough to beat. According to Pacific Northwest green building supplier Ecohaus, bamboo is one of the firm’s top selling flooring options and is harder, more moisture resistant and more stable than even oak hardwoods. You'll also findbamboo room dividing screens, tableware and other furnishings for the home.
Bamboo is also making waves in the clothing industry as an eco-chic and functional new fabric. Softer than cotton and with a texture more akin to silk or cashmere,bamboo clothing naturally draws moisture away from the skin, so it’s great for hot weather or for sweaty workouts. It also dries in about half the time as cotton clothing. Look for bamboo bedding, towels and rugs, too.
Some critics point out that the process of converting bamboo to fabric can take a heavy environmental toll, with the most cost-effective and widespread method involving a harsh chemical-based hydrolysis-alkalization process followed by multi-phase bleaching. The Green Guide counters, though, that bamboo still has a much lower environmental impact than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived nylon and polyester fabrics. And some brands including Gaiamare sourcing bamboo fabrics made with lower-eco-impact methods including stringent water purification steps.
Bamboo is also making inroads into the paper industry, though there are fears that too fast a transition there would threaten ecologically diverse bamboo forests across Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The Earth Island Institute, among other groups concerned about forest loss due to paper consumption, would instead like to see more research into using agricultural waste to make paper instead of wood pulp or bamboo.
Regardless, bamboo in all its forms might one day soon be one of the most important plants in the world.