Are bamboo floors really that much better than hardwood floors?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
June 10 2008 7:26 AM

Bamboo and You

Are hardwood floors a crime against the Earth?

A flooring salesman recently tried to sell me on the greenness of bamboo. He claimed that producing bamboo planks is more sustainable than the methods used to create oak or maple floors. Is there really that much of a difference?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Bamboo does have loads of green potential. But as is usually the case when it comes to crops, much depends on how the bamboo is managed, harvested, and ultimately made into flooring. Many producers assume that consumers won't pay attention to such behind-the-scenes details and will be dazzled by smooth-talking salesman who toss around words like "sustainability" and "sequestration." It's up to you to do your homework and avoid being cajoled in such a manner.

As most Botany 101 students learn, bamboo is widely regarded as one of the planet's fastest-growing plants—some species can grow up to three feet in a single day. That means that the plants can be harvested and regrown in a jiffy: A bamboo plant reaches full maturity within three to five years, versus 40 to 50 years for many species of hardwood trees. If culled correctly, so that a viable portion of the stalk and roots remain, the bamboo needn't be replanted; it can simply regenerate.

According to bamboo advocates, this rapid cycle translates into increased carbon sequestration, since fast growing trees (such as the eucalyptus) absorb carbon more quickly than the likes of oaks and pines. (Though it's technically a grass, bamboo is usually compared to trees because of its woodlike properties.) The World Wildlife Fund estimates that an acre of bamboo can store 6.88 metric tons of carbon per year, about 70 percent more than an acre of
hardwoods. * If that bamboo is turned into flooring or furniture that won't rot due to the treatments applied, then that carbon can remain fixed for decades.

The last point in bamboo's favor is its robustness. The plant will grow in a variety of climates and soils and can flourish unaided by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or gas-guzzling machinery. Bamboo producers also claim that the plant's extensive root systems prevent soil erosion, though the Lantern has yet to see evidence supporting this contention from sources uninvolved in the flooring trade.

But bamboo's environmental edge can evaporate if the stuff is heedlessly grown. Given the recent vogue for bamboo among Western consumers, producers in Asia (specifically China's Hunan Province) have been aggressive with their planting, often at the expense of old woodlands and their attendant ecosystems. To goose their yields, these plantations employ plenty of fertilizers and pesticides, thereby negating one of bamboo's primary advantages. And when the bamboo is converted into planks, the factories often use glues with high levels of formaldehyde, which can have serious health consequences for consumers (particularly those with asthma or severe allegies). Reading the label usually can't shed much light on these concerns. There just isn't much international oversight of China's bamboo plantations. While there are plenty of hardwood operations whose sustainability is verified by the Forest Stewardship Council, the Lantern knows of only  one bamboo flooring company that has obtained FSC certification.

Manufacturers of hardwood flooring also point out that bamboo planks cause lots of fossil-fuel emissions when they're transported to the United States from China. The Lantern isn't totally swayed by this line of argument, however: While giant container ships certainly burn tons of fuel, they are also fairly efficient due to their massive capacities. (The shipping company Maersk, citing Sweden's Network for Transport and the Environment, contends that its ships are actually cleaner than trains, trucks, or cargo planes.) As a result, your specific geographic location will play a role in your flooring's transportation-related impact. If you live in California, shipping bamboo from China may result in less fossil-fuel consumption than, say, trucking in maple flooring from the Northeast.

The bottom line is that the onus is on you to ask questions before you fork over thousands of dollars for new flooring. Don't automatically assume that bamboo is the environmental winner, especially if there's a locally sourced, FSC-certified hardwood option. If you are tempted by bamboo, don't settle for the salesman's patter about his product's wonders—get in touch with the manufacturer and inquire about how the source material is raised and harvested. Some of the greenest bamboo doesn't come from monoculture plantations but, rather, from operations such as Madagascar Bamboo, which harvests naturally occurring plants from the edges of farms. (The farmers used to think of the bamboo as a valueless annoyance.)

Also look into whether the floors use low-formaldehyde glue. Don't be shy about asking for test results—reputable flooring companies should offer glues that emit less than 0.01 parts per million of the substance. (You'll probably have to pay around 75 cents more per square foot for such flooring, but it may be worth it.)

Above all, be sure to walk on an installed bamboo floor before forking over your hard-earned cash. There is a lot of variety in the feel of bamboo flooring, depending on how carefully the material has been treated and the finish applied. You want to make sure you're laying down planks that will grace your home for decades, not something you'll simply rip up in favor of maple five years down the line. As always in environmental quandaries such as these, the greenest decision is the one that will result in the least amount of turnover.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Correction, June 12, 2008: The original version incorrectly referred to the "World Wildlife
Federation." (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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