The criteria that are used to determine the ecological impact of various flooring materials are diverse and complex. With bamboo, you have a number of characteristics that make it seem like a very earth-friendly flooring choice. And it is, in many ways. But there are subtle issues of regulation and long-term ecological impact that detract from its shining reputation.
Positive Ecological Factors of Bamboo
Bamboo may look and feel like wood, but it's not actually wood; it's a woody grass. Much of its eco-friendliness comes from the plants' rapid growth and the regenerative quality of the plants it is harvested from.
Renewable: Bamboo can grow from seed to full harvest-ready maturity in as little as 3 to 5 years. (However, flooring harvested between 5 and 7 years tends to be harder.) In some cases, bamboo will grow up to 24 inches in a single day. This is much faster than hardwood trees, which can take upwards of 20 years to grow to full height.
When bamboo is harvested, only stalk is cut, while the roots remain planted in the soil. These roots can regrow an entirely new stalk without having to be replanted. This cuts down on labor costs when replenishing harvested fields.
Healthy harvesting: In most cases, periodic harvesting of bamboo stalks is actually healthy for the environment. That is because chopping the stalks down to size allows sunlight to filter down to the earth and reach some other, shorter plants. This can be great for renewing the ecology of a planted area.
Erosion prevention: Bamboo plants have particularly long roots that reach deep into the soil where they grow. These roots spread out in spider-like veins and serve to bind the earth around them, holding it together and combating erosion.
Life cycle: High-quality bamboo flooring may be covered by manufacturer warranties of up to 25 years. And If properly installed and cared for, a bamboo floor (like hardwood) can last much longer. Refinishing periodically will help to reinvigorate the look of the material. The long service life of bamboo reduces the need for replacement, saving resources.
Recyclable: Bamboo can be removed and reused in new flooring installations.
Biodegradable: Bamboo is a natural material that will largely biodegrade in landfills. However, synthetic finishes used on bamboo flooring are not always biodegradable.
LEED: Bamboo has been recognized by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program as being an ecologically-friendly building material.
Negative Ecological Factors of Bamboo
As with most building materials, the degree of negative impacts of bamboo largely depends on the practices of individual growers and flooring manufacturers. Better-quality flooring usually comes with more information about the harvesting and treatment of the material, while the practices of budget-flooring manufacturers are typically less transparent or widely advertised.
Overexpansion: Because of the popularity of bamboo, fields devoted to growing these plants are spreading and are starting to take over land traditionally used for other purposes. This can have negative effects on biodiversity and the ecological balance of local environments. Bamboo is invasive in many areas.
Lack of FSC certification: While some manufacturers of quality bamboo flooring offer materials from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests, much of the bamboo flooring on the market does not come from FSC forests and may not promote sustainable forest management. For the most eco-friendly bamboo flooring, look for FSC-certified products as a starting point.
Formaldehyde: Many bamboo flooring products are made with adhesive or binders containing urea formaldehyde, which can emit a toxic gas (through a process called off-gassing) after the flooring is installed. Bamboo can be manufactured without added formaldehyde and can test for very low levels of formaldehyde overall. Better manufacturers publish their test results for formaldehyde levels, which should exceed the European Eo safety standards.
Transportation: Because most bamboo is grown, manufactured, and shipped from Southeast Asia, the carbon emissions that are given off during the transportation process can also be an issue affecting the ecological viability of this material.
You Get What You Pay For
With high-quality bamboo flooring, you're not only getting a better, more durable product over budget options; you're most likely getting a more environmentally-friendly material. But don't use price as a guide for eco-friendliness. For the real story, ask manufacturers about their foresting practices, their test results for formaldehyde levels in the manufacture of their flooring, and finishes. FSC-certified products also cost more, but this is a reliable guarantee that the bamboo comes from a sustainably-managed forest.