Eco-friendly bamboo options have gotten better, but the choice is still not simple.
If you want the "greenest" bamboo flooring out there what do you look for? We have talked a lot about bamboo over the years, starting in 1997. The options have gotten better, but the choice is still not simple. GreenSpec lists what we think is the best bamboo flooring available today, and our section description explains our criteria, but lets break it down a bit.
Bamboo was originally championed as an inherently green material because it is rapidly renewable, but EBN's feature article, Bamboo in Construction: Is the Grass Always Greener? made it clear that sustainability isn't just about how fast it grows.
EBN dispelled the myth that bamboo flooring is taking food away from endangered Giant Pandas--pandas no longer live in the lowlands where bamboo is harvested for industrial use; but there are still a lot of variables to consider. Nearly all of the bamboo used in North America is grown in China, and there is great variability in bamboo growing and harvesting practices. BuildingGreen announced the first FSC certified bamboo in 2008, as a way to verify growing and harvest practices and GreenSpec now lists four companies with FSC certified bamboo. (FSC certified bamboo can contribute to the Certified Wood credit in LEED. We'll see what happens in LEED 2012).
Low-emitting--by what definition?
Bamboo has very little naturally occurring formaldehyde, but the many strips of bamboo that make up most bamboo products are usually glued together with a urea formaldehyde binder. That emits a lot of formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen.
There are plenty of low-emitting alternatives today, but also many different ways of showing it, making things complicated. GreenSpec accepts a broad range of measures: products may be certified to meet Floorscore or Greenguard Children & Schools, demonstrate that they meet Carb Phase II emissions requirements for formaldehyde, or have formaldehyde emissions of 0.05 ppm or lower using the ASTM E-1333 test for Europe's E1 standard (you can also find products certified to the more stringent E0 standard). Because the binders are the potential source of emissions concerns, GreenSpec also includes some products that don't have emissions testing but use binders and adhesives that have ultra-low formaldehyde concentrations (less than or equal to 0.02 ppm) or no added formaldehyde.
Our articles go into more detail on other issues, such as variable hardness of bamboo, and variability in manufacturing performance (unfortunately ISO 9001 and 14001 registration may not have the same level of verification in China).
Looking beyond current bamboo products
We'd love to see an FSC and Greenguard Children & Schools certified hard, durable, and gorgeous product from a reputable manufacturer that uses an internationally rigorous ISO-accredited auditor... but it's not out there, so we list the best available and we'd be interested in hearing how you make the final cut.
Lastly, it's always worth asking if there's an alternative material available for your particular situation that's a better fit for the environment and the project. I enjoyed a "Bamboo Schmamboo" comment we got from a reader, Clarke Snell, because it further challenges the broad-brush application of a rule-of-thumb like "bamboo is green." He makes some good points, and if you happen to know a forester local to a North American project who is clearly harvesting hardwoods sustainably, that may be your greenest choice (even recognizing that due to the efficiency of ocean freighters, the transportation energy of a Chinese bamboo flooring product may be comparable to a domestic hardwood flooring product.), so understand your actual alternatives.
Along those lines, I'll quote Snell for today's closing comments: "I continue to maintain that the first prerequisite for moving toward a sustainable society is a critical mind."