Blog Post

"Green" Bamboo Flooring: What Matters Most?

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.

Looking beyond "Rapidly Renewable" to FSC

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).

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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."

 

Published November 9, 2011

(2011, November 9). "Green" Bamboo Flooring: What Matters Most?. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/blog/green-bamboo-flooring-what-matters-most

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Comments

November 25, 2011 - 1:52 pm

Why you take a tour here in my country Philippines specially in Mindanao region for more details about your blog of bamboo flooring. Bamboo flooring is known in our city and we commonly used that idea here.

November 16, 2011 - 1:32 pm

With all due respect to the folks at building green, this article is off the mark.
I've spent quite a bit of time in China doing product development for a Bamboo company, visited both FSC-certified and uncertified plantations, and read as many of the translated Chinese academic studies on this issue as I could find. When it comes to the Mao Zhu Bamboo that is used to make flooring, panels, and other building products, Greenspec has it wrong when they say that "there is great variability in bamboo growing and harvesting practices." In fact, the practices are very similar throughout the region where it is grown (East-Central China), and have been since long before the first container of Bamboo flooring crossed the Pacific. Of course there is some variability, as there is in any type of agriculture, but for the most part the techniques that are now being FSC-certified are the same ones that the small family growers (which represent the vast majority of the production) have been using for eons, because they earn the most money that way. And they ARE good practices. They tend to restore soil quality, protect against erosion, require minimal fertilizers or pesticides, and result in good, durable material.
The certifications that have taken place have mainly been the result of American and European importers trying to get a leg up on their competition. They have not resulted in concrete changes on the ground. They have mainly been exercises in political organizing (gathering producer families into groups), paperwork, and the paying of fees. In the press release announcing the first available FSC-certified Bamboo in the US, the importer that organized that certification in China explicitly stated that the growers didn't have to change a thing about how they managed the plantations in order to get certified, and discussed how Bamboo has been grown sustainably in China for many generations.
If FSC certifies Bamboo, it should also respond to the demand for certification of other agricultural bio-based materials like cotton, linseed, and hemp. Bamboo production is not forestry, it is farming. It is much more akin to growing food-stock than it is to even plantation forestry. To push Bamboo into the wood category and demand that it be certified without demanding the same of other agricultural products is unfair. It disadvantages the many Chinese families who grow Bamboo responsibly and yet aren't hooked up with the handful of foreign companies that have undertaken the political and financial effort to develop this marketing idea.
Greenspec also got it wrong in its discussion about the adhesives and in saying that "Bamboo has very little naturally occurring formaldehyde." Although I don’t have figures on how raw Bamboo compares to raw wood in terms of formaldehyde emissions, the following story is revealing: when we switched the Bamboo flooring product that I was overseeing from a urea-formaldehyde adhesive to a non-formaldehyde adhesive, we ended up with Bamboo flooring that was HIGHER in formaldehyde emissions than the old UF product. The UF glues are cured by heat, and we learned that the heat was flashing off most of the formaldehyde not only from the glue, but from the Bamboo itself. The formaldehyde-free glue was cold-pressed, so all of the naturally-occurring formaldehyde was left in the Bamboo. The new 'formaldehyde-free' product had 33% higher formaldehyde emissions than the UF product. But it qualified for LEED’s ‘no added urea-formaldehyde’ credit!

As to the question of freight impacts and whether or not domestic hardwoods (especially FSC-certified hardwoods) are a superior choice to Bamboo, I’m not aware of a detailed carbon footprint study but here are some things to keep in mind: 1) the Mao Zhu is mostly grown within 4-5 hours of the coast in China, so the voyage is primarily via water; 2) ocean freight is ~22 times more efficient than trucking, and 3) most hardwood products are trucked from the hardwood producing states (Great Lakes, Appalachians, Southeast) to California rather than being sent via rail, a trip that takes 2-4 days. There’s no way a Bamboo floor installed on the West Coast has a higher carbon footprint than an Oak floor that’s been trucked out here, even if you ignore the carbon sequestration capacity of a Bamboo plantation, which can’t be rivaled.
We also need to keep in mind that quite a bit of the domestic hardwood that gets sold here is now being milled in Asia. An Oak tree is cut down in Wisconsin, shipped to Dalian, China for milling into flooring or furniture, and shipped right back to Wisconsin to be sold at a Home Depot located 5 miles from the stump. This is happening on a massive scale - the wood industry is globalized far beyond what most people imagine. And even on relatively simple products like solid flooring, material is handled by multiple companies as it makes its way down this global supply chain, so it’s virtually impossible for consumers to trace the route their wood has taken between the forest and their home, even with FSC-certified wood. I used to manage the supply chain for a company that tried to be as green as it could and only sell FSC-certified material, but in order to compete we had products made with components from as many as 4 continents. We had one floor made with Maple from Wisconsin, Rubberwood core from Sri Lanka, Radiata Pine backing from New Zealand, coatings from Sweden, and adhesive from Germany, all being processed at a factory in Malaysia for sale in the U.S. But it was sold as a domestic Maple floor, was FSC Pure, and had ‘no added urea-formaldehyde.’ Perfectly green!

So I guess Bamboo has one more added advantage – at least we know where it comes from and pretty much exactly how it gets here.

There are so many important areas where we (and LEED) should be applying pressure on producers to improve their practices, and in my opinion Bamboo should not rank high on that list of priorities.

November 17, 2011 - 3:00 am

By the way, I completely agree that harvest practices of all types of bio-based products should be verified. My discussion of the plight of the Bamboo producing families that don't have access to certification was just to support the argument that Bamboo is being unfairly singled out among agricultural products. I think it was a mistake for FSC to get involved in certifying just ONE agricultural product.

November 17, 2011 - 2:50 am

Hi Jennifer -

Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.

Regarding the formaldehyde question, we tested the old version of our Bamboo floor made with a urea-formaldehyde adhesive and got results averaging 0.015ppm. The new version, which was made with a non-formaldehyde EPI (emulsion polymer isocyanate) adhesive, averaged 0.02ppm. I think what's probably most important about these results is that they are both extremely low. Perhaps too much is being made of this adhesive issue, especially considering that different processes (temperature, etc.) seem to matter more than the glue itself. Our strandwoven (composite) Bamboo floor tested in the same range as the UF product (0.015ppm), despite being infused throughout with a phenol-formaldehyde resin. The heat from the curing process flashed off just about all of the formaldehyde. I applaud California regulators for not taking a cue from LEED and instead basing the new CARB standards on performance rather than ingredients.

I agree with you that we should compare products based on the alternatives for that application, but if we compare hardwood to Bamboo then we also need to compare it to sisal, linseed-based linoleum, and any other flooring products made of bio-based materials. We should be worrying just as much about how those bio-based flooring products are produced as we do about Bamboo.

But let's compare Bamboo to domestic hardwood flooring with regard to another important topic you touched on - freight. I’m not aware of a detailed carbon footprint study comparing hardwoods to Bamboo, but here are some things to keep in mind:
1) the Mao Zhu is mostly grown within 4-5 hours of the coast in China, so the voyage is primarily via water;
2) as you point out, ocean freight is many times more efficient than trucking (I've seen different statistics around this, ranging from 7x to 22x), and
3) most hardwood products are trucked from the hardwood producing states (Great Lakes, Appalachians, Southeast) to the West Coast, a trip that takes 2-4 days.
By very rough calculations, assuming even the lowest 7x estimate of the efficiency advantage of ocean freight, there is no way a Bamboo floor has a higher carbon footprint than an Oak floor that’s been trucked long distances. And then there's the carbon sequestration capacity of a Bamboo plantation, which can’t be rivaled.
In my opinion, an FSC-certified hardwood that is harvested, milled, and installed in a building all in the same general region would be a superior choice to Bamboo. However, it's extremely rare that things are that tidy. Quite a bit of the domestic hardwood that gets sold here is now being milled in Asia (including FSC-certified products), so even if you're in a hardwood region, the carbon embodied in your Oak floor could be substantial. Oak trees are cut down in Wisconsin, shipped to Dalian, China to be milled into flooring, and shipped right back to Wisconsin to be sold at a Home Depot located 5 miles from the stump. This is happening on a massive scale - the wood industry is globalized far beyond what most people imagine. And even on relatively simple products like solid flooring, material is handled by multiple companies as it makes its way down this global supply chain, so it’s virtually impossible for consumers to trace the route their wood has taken between the forest and their home, even with FSC-certified products. I used to manage the supply chain for a company that tried to be as green as it could and only sell FSC-certified material, but in order to compete we had products made with components from as many as 4 continents. We had one floor made with Maple from Wisconsin, Rubberwood core from Sri Lanka, Radiata Pine backing from New Zealand, coatings from Sweden, and adhesive from Germany, all being processed at a factory in Malaysia for sale in the U.S. But it was sold as a domestic Maple floor, was FSC Pure, and had ‘no added urea-formaldehyde.’ Uber-green!

So in that respect Bamboo has one more added advantage – at least we know where it comes from and pretty much exactly how it gets here.

Regards,

-Dan Harrington

November 15, 2011 - 4:11 am

You have made several good points, I think that many times bamboo is marketed as green because it grows fast. As you pointed out there are other points to consider when picking a really green product such as the amount of formaldehyde.

November 14, 2011 - 11:32 am

Dan, thanks for your insider perspective on Bamboo.

Like you, we're all for holding bio-based materials to the same high standards that we expect wood to be held to, and have argued that other agricultural products used as building materials - not just Bamboo - be held to such a standard (right along with non-biobased products, for that matter http://www.buildinggreen.com/live/index.cfm/2011/7/6/Pilot-Credit-43-and...).

Whether to compare bamboo on its merits as an agricultural product or its merits as an alternative to wood is well worth exploring further. I happen to think both approaches are needed, but for the purposes of product selection, alternatives analysis---comparing products based on the alternatives for that application-- to my mind is the most relevant. Tomatoes aren't an alternative to FSC wood for flooring.

The issue you raise about the paperwork and cost of certification disadvantaging small producers is a very real concern, not just for bamboo, not just small forestry, but for any product type for which certification is a market requirement, particularly if there hasn't been a focus on making the certification accessible to small operators.

At the same time, the further you separate the producer from the consumer the greater the need for verification (Or, to put it in another way, "The more self-evident a product’s attributes are, the less they need to be verified with certification." http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2008/1/1/Behind-the-Logos-... -- harvest practices are not self-evident, so who's word should we take?). While there may be many good actors, what about the ones that aren't? Also, as demand for a material increases, unsustainable production models can follow as a way to ramp up supply -- how do we ensure that our purchases don't contribute to that?

Your comment on formaldehyde I find fascinating, and I'd be very interested to see your data on that, and any additional data that could verify your findings, in contrast to what manufacturers have explained to us in the past. We're always open to new information and perspective.

I'd love to get to the point where the environmental and social consequences of each material selection decision was clearly and irrefutably laid out. We're not there yet. In the mean time we hope that this kind of dialogue, with perspective from you, Clarke Snell (the "Bamboo Schmamboo" commenter referred to above) and others, can help individuals better understand what's at stake when they make selection decisions.

November 13, 2011 - 11:53 pm

With all due respect to the folks at building green, I'd like to differ with some of the conclusions in this article.

I've spent alot of time in China doing product development work for a Bamboo company. I've visited both FSC-certified and uncertified plantations, and I've read many of the studies by Chinese academics on this issue. When it comes to the Mao Zhu Bamboo that is used to make flooring, panels, and other building products, Greenspec has it wrong when they say that "there is great variability in bamboo growing and harvesting practices." In fact, the practices are very similar throughout the region where it is grown (East-Central China), and have been since long before the first container of Bamboo flooring crossed the Pacific. Of course there is some variability, as there is in any type of agriculture, but for the most part the techniques that are now being FSC-certified are the same ones that the small family growers (which represent the vast majority of the production) have been using for eons because they earn the most money that way. And they ARE good practices. They tend to restore soil quality, protect against erosion, require little-to-no chemicals, and result in a perpetual yield of good quality material.

The certifications that have taken place have mainly been the result of American and European importers trying to get a leg up on their competition. They have not resulted in many (if any) concrete changes on the ground. They have mainly been exercises in political organizing (gathering producer families into groups), paperwork, and the paying of fees. In the press release from the first US importer who was able to get a certificate organized, issued when they announced the availability of FSC Bamboo, they explicitly stated that the growers didn't have to change a thing about how they managed the plantations in order to get certified.

Bamboo production is NOT forestry, it is farming. It is much more akin to growing foodstock than it is to even plantation forestry. If the FSC certifies Bamboo, it should also be willing to certify cotton, linseed, hemp, and tomatoes. I'm all for holding other bio-based materials to the same high standards that we expect wood to be held to, but to push Bamboo into the wood category and demand that it be certified without demanding the same of all other agricultural products is unfair and misleading to consumers. It also disadvantages the many Chinese families who grow Bamboo responsibly and yet aren't hooked up with the handful of companies that have undertaken the political and financial effort to develop this marketing idea. Of course, you can make the same valid critique with regard to small forest landowners and the difficulties they have getting FSC-certified, but in the case of China we're talking about people who are much poorer and a market in which only a miniscule percentage of the growers are going to have the opportunity to get involved in certification.

This article also got it wrong in its discussion about the adhesives and in saying that "Bamboo has very little naturally occurring formaldehyde." When we switched our Bamboo flooring product from a urea-formaldehyde adhesive to a non-formaldehyde adhesive, we ended up with Bamboo flooring that was HIGHER in formaldehyde emissions than the old UF product. The UF glues are cured by heat, and we learned that the heat was flashing off most of the formaldehyde not only from the glue but from the Bamboo itself. The formaldehyde-free glue was cold-pressed, so all of the naturally-occurring formaldehyde was left in the Bamboo and the new 'formaldehyde-free' product had 33% higher formaldehyde emissions than the UF product. But it qualified for the LEED credit!

There are so many important areas where we (and LEED) should be applying pressure on producers to improve their practices. In my opinion Bamboo should be very, very low on that list of priorities.

-Dan Harrington, LEED Green Associate