Green Topics

Bamboo Flooring: Understanding the Options

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Bamboo flooring is typically made by slicing bamboo poles into strips. These are destarched by boiling, glued into boards, and milled. Preservative treatment—often boric acid, though more harmful chemicals may be used—is applied during this process. Most bamboo flooring uses a urea-formaldehyde (UF) adhesive in the lamination process. Though the use of UF resins, which emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is harmful to indoor air quality, bamboo flooring uses a relatively small amount compared with other materials, such as particleboards. Bamboo flooring products that avoid formaldehyde use are available, including some listed in the GreenSpec Directory.

Bamboo flooring may come in several colors:

Bamboo Flooring Types

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Bamboo flooring is typically made by slicing bamboo poles into strips. These are destarched by boiling, glued into boards, and milled. Preservative treatment—often boric acid, though more harmful chemicals may be used—is applied during this process. Most bamboo flooring uses a urea-formaldehyde (UF) adhesive in the lamination process. Though the use of UF resins, which emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is harmful to indoor air quality, bamboo flooring uses a relatively small amount compared with other materials, such as particleboards. Bamboo flooring products that avoid formaldehyde use are available, including some listed in the GreenSpec Directory.

Bamboo flooring may come in several colors:

• A light, “natural” color.

• A darker, amber color achieved by carbonizing the bamboo in a pressure-steaming process. The carbonizing process can reduce the floor’s final hardness by 10% or more, though it will still be harder than most hardwoods.

• Dyed colors, some atrocious, are also available, which may use heavy metals and other toxic substances.

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A Chinese factory worker lays slats of bamboo into flooring blanks.

Photo: Teragren, LLC

In addition to standard tongue-and-groove and plank flooring, floating floor products are available. Most floating floors still require the use of adhesives which may emit high levels of VOCs. Click-together products avoid adhesives during installation. Prefinished products, which are common, almost always use low-VOC, UV-cured finishes.

The hardness of bamboo flooring depends in large measure on the species of bamboo, and its age when harvested. Three years is generally considered to be the best minimum; some companies claim to use only five- or six-year-old culms, or sprouts. Flooring made from inferior species or younger bamboo dents and wears more readily. Good bamboo flooring products range from slightly lower, to significantly harder, than common hardwood flooring.

The bamboo species most often used to make flooring (Phyllostachys

pubescens—known as “moso” in Japan, and “mao zhu” in China) matures in three years; is self-regenerating; and uses little or no fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical use is more common on plantations where edible shoots are grown.

Most bamboo flooring available in the North American market is made in Hunan Province in southern China with bamboo harvested from natural and plantation groves there. (Pandas, which live much higher elevations, don’t eat this kind of bamboo.) Bamboo certified to the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) meets criteria for environmental sustainability and social responsibility, and several flooring products are available with this option.

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Moso is the most widely cultivated bamboo species in China, and some bamboo forests have been farmed for generations.

Photo: Teragren, LLC

Although American importers often tout the environmental responsibility of their bamboo products, they generally have little information about, let alone control over, bamboo manufacturers, which are mostly Chinese-owned. (A small amount of bamboo flooring is made in Vietnam from bamboo grown there.) Manufacturers use potentially toxic binders, finishes, and other chemicals; create lots of solid waste; and run equipment that may be dangerous and polluting. Several distributors require the manufacturers they work with to be registered under International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards 9001 for quality control and 14001 for environmental management systems EMS, although these standards don’t necessarily set very high bars.

Carbon emissions and pollution from transportation involved in importing bamboo products is an environmental downside. However, the ocean freighters used for importing from China are relatively efficient at transporting goods compared with the trucks typically used for transporting domestic goods. The transportation energy of a Chinese bamboo flooring product may be comparable to a domestic hardwood flooring product.

 

Comments (1)

1 bamboo schmamboo posted by Jeff Buscher on 04/21/2011 at 05:25 pm

I live near Asheville, NC, a green building sweet spot in the US. Even though we live smack dab in the middle of hardwood forests, I have been surprised to watch imported bamboo flooring catch on in the green scene around here.

To my mind, locally and regionally produced hardwood flooring is vastly superior to bamboo. The processing is so simple: cut the tree down, mill it, kiln dry it, then install it. Okay, it takes more than three years to grow an oak tree, but you don't need any toxic binders and since you can sand the floor repeatedly the floor will last at least as long as the building. To my mind, hardwood flooring is one of the most sustainable uses of wood that we've devised.

The popularity of bamboo in my area is just another example of green marketing convincing people to not see the forest for the trees, or in this case the bamboo. I continue to maintain that the first prerequisite for moving toward a sustainable society is a critical mind.

--Clarke Snell, Marshall, NC

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September 16, 2008