Bamboo boom

The fast-growing plant is used worldwide for everything from floors to food

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History of bamboo use:
More than 5,000 years ago, treehouses were constructed in China of bamboo, according to Bamboo was used to make paper and books during the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 to 221 B.C.; by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), bamboo was used to make bedding and flooring.

There’s no doubt that bamboo is versatile—it’s used for everything from lightweight bikes, to flooring, furniture and fishing rods. But is it really as eco-friendly as companies claim?

Bamboo is a grass, not a tree. There are approximately 1,250 species of bamboo, and about 100 species are used commercially according to the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. The fiber is among the fastest-growing in the world: While an oak tree takes 120 years to grow to maturity, bamboo can be harvested in three.

Even though bamboo has some obvious eco-benefits—it pulls carbon from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration and reproduces itself after harvest—not all bamboo is created equal.

“Bamboo was the darling of green building for 15 years,” said Alex Wilson, founder and executive editor of But, as environmentalists study the fiber, he added, the “story gets more complex.”

Bamboo flooring is often a composite “wood” product like particle board that’s made by gluing bamboo strips together. Those in the market for bamboo flooring can look for water-based, formaldehyde-free adhesives with low- or no-volatile organic compound finishes. Scott Steady, product manager for indoor air quality at UL Environment, says that, depending on the type of glues and the amounts used, chemicals such as volatile organic compounds can be emitting from the product. “Just because manufacturers have changed the ingredients doesn’t mean the current ingredients are good,” he said.

Wilson is concerned with the toxic adhesives used in some bamboo flooring. He says consumers can check the GreenGuard Environmental Institute for nontoxic options.

Some bamboo-flooring suppliers are paying attention. Take San Francisco-based Smith & Fong Company, makers of Plyboo bamboo flooring and plywood. The company is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council under its non-wood products category. “FSC-certified bamboo is the consumer’s assurance that the bamboo products they purchase are from a well-managed forest,” said Daniel Smith, founder and president of Smith & Fong. The company uses a soy-based, formaldehyde-free adhesive on its bamboo flooring and lumber.

GreenGuard Environmental Institute, part of UL Environment, certifies low-emitting products. In the bamboo category, GreenGuard lists only flooring products.

The FSC’s non-wood products category lists 51 U.S. companies, including Smith & Fong and Teragren ( Bamboo flooring options at Teragren include wide-plank and solid-strip in a variety of styles.

Most bamboo comes from China and Vietnam. Wilson says he favors local products, but adds that ocean shipping is very efficient per ton mile. While he likes the performance qualities of bamboo, he stresses the importance of third-party certification.

The annual global market for bamboo is estimated at $7 billion per year. This amount is expected to grow to nearly $17 billion per year by 2017, according to Susanne Lucas, executive director of the World Bamboo Organization, adding that the amount represents total trade of goods and services, from the raw materials to the finished goods.

The U.S. currently has no large-scale bamboo farms. David Knight, the co-founder, president and CFO of Resource Fiber/Alabama—who co-founded Teragren with his wife, Ann—plans to change that by establishing a commercial-scale bamboo industry in Alabama. He is planting “acres and acres” (he declined to offer a specific number) in a farming operation in Alabama’s Black Belt region, and is planning manufacturing facilities.

“With the introduction of bamboo into the agricultural portfolio, the region will serve as the bamboo epicenter for the United States,” Knight said, “bringing industry, new research and economic development not seen since the early 19th century when cotton was king.”

In the future, when green-minded builders and homeowners want truly sustainable grown-and-manufactured-in-the-U.S. bamboo, they’ll be able to find it.

This story first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of E/The Environmental Magazine.