The Truth About Bamboo Flooring

Bamboo Flooring And Its Environmental Impact

Bamboo is a fairly new type of flooring for the American market. Its popularity has grown very fast. Bamboo flooring is commonly sold as a “green” floor product. After all, it is a renewable resource. So what exactly is the ethical problem with bamboo flooring? Well, this topic has become very controversial as consumers are learning more and more about how these floors are actually made. Bamboo has a reputation of being sustainable and elegant. If you have ever been to a high-end spa or a classy office, you may notice that very often these businesses choose bamboo flooring because they depict a stylish image.

The bamboo floor manufacturers sell it as the cost-effective, environmentally-friendly choice. Often people have small budgets for doing their floors and would love to get something relatively cheap and sustainable. The appeal that many consumers have to bamboo floors is quite obvious. Manufacturers have done an incredibly good job convincing the public that if you purchase bamboo flooring, you are making an environmentally responsible choice. There has been a move away from our dependency on hardwoods. People still want the properties of hardwoods and bamboo is sold as this alternative. But is this really the case? How sustainable is bamboo flooring?

Many of the sales pitches will compare traditional bamboo floors to hardwood floors. One of the most common claims about bamboo flooring is that it is actually harder than hardwood floors. Some companies will even show statistics on the hardness of bamboo compared to hardwoods. Some make ridiculous claims like that “bamboo is actually harder than oak”! It obviously is quite softer than oak! Bamboo is not as hard as the floor manufacturers claim. A lot of people look at the Janka Hardness Test as a means to justify and explain the durability of bamboo flooring. If you look at many of the Janka Hardness Test online, you will see that bamboo largely fluctuates. It is actually rated at 1180 p.s.i. However, some tests put bamboo higher up in the Janka Hardness Test, making it appear stronger than it actually is. You should be very weary of these skewed test results, especially when they are coming from manufacturers who our out to sell you bamboo floor coverings. These manufacturers want to make bamboo look as hard as possible. A lot of the skewed results will test the hardest parts of the wood like the joints, edges and knots. (Bamboo doesn’t have any knots but you get my drift.) Many people will bend the rules of the test to make bamboo look strong. They may use the highest quality bamboo even though most of the bamboo available to the public is young and soft.

The reason why bamboo flooring is known for its environmental sustainability is that it is considered a grass and not a tree. This means that it is harvested when it is quite young. The comparison is that it takes an oak tree 60 to 120 years to grow to maturity whereas it takes only about five years for a bamboo plant to mature to the point when it can be harvested. It also self-generates relatively quickly. This means that without planting a new crop of bamboo, it will regenerate on its own. Also, it uses hardly any pesticides and fertilizers. In other words, bamboo is a very easy and fast-growing crop. Another compelling reason for bamboo is that the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED Rating System recognizes bamboo as a green building material. The USGBC actually grants credits for using bamboo in building construction and this obviously includes bamboo floors. This makes bamboo even more appealing. This sounds great. This credit program supports the manufacturers’ sales tactics. This easy-to-understand sales pitch grabs any consumer who doesn’t do his homework! But, as you become more familiar with bamboo flooring, you will learn that it is sold as a “feel good” product. People think that by choosing a bamboo floor, they are doing an act of green. Besides, brands like “EnviroChoice Bamboo Flooring” and “EcoTimber Flooring” make bamboo flooring sound like a terrific, environmentally-friendly option to the average homeowner looking to do their floors.

Here is the downside: Bamboo primarily comes from China. In China, many mature forests are being clear cut to make way for bamboo plantations because there is such a high demand for bamboo from the American market. These plantations are not being implemented in a sustainable way because bamboo is becoming a monoculture. This means that bamboo is the only crop that is growing in these regions. Any monoculture will have a negative impact on biodiversity. One of the most prominent examples of bamboo’s threat to biodiversity is the giant panda. The panda bear is losing its habitat to bamboo plantations rapidly. Forests are being logged and cleared for bamboo. The panda bear is on the endangered species list because of the growing market for bamboo in North America.

As I said before, bamboo is sold as a fast-growing grass that doesn’t even require any fertilizers. This may be true on a very small scale. But, to keep up with American demand for bamboo products, fertilizers are being used widely to get a larger yield. This claim about not using any fertilizers doesn’t hold any truth. If they didn’t use any fertilizers, they would not be producing bamboo floor coverings as fast as they are! The pesticides and fertilizers have a huge impact on the environment. The Chinese most often don’t even comply with American or European standards when it comes to the production of bamboo. This means that the fertilizers and pesticides that are used in the production of bamboo are not monitored. Here is the proof: The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) has only certified one bamboo flooring company as of recently. (The only company the FSC has certified is Smith & Fong.) This means that how bamboo is grown and processed is not regulated at all.

Erosion is another environmental concern. Some manufacturers sell bamboo as a green product so much so that they claim that because it has a broad root structure, it helps to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion. In fact, erosion is an intrinsic natural process and is healthy for certain ecosystems. Even if this is the case with more mature plants, this is actually not a good thing! However, this is actually a false claim. Most forest lands are on hilly and mountainous terrains with steep slopes. When they clear cut a forest to plant bamboo, they are actually increasing erosion until the bamboo becomes fairly mature. Even though they may say they are working harmoniously with nature, they are clearly disrupting ecosystems.

Aside from the environmental impact, there are also significant social problems that the bamboo industry causes. The cost of bamboo is slightly cheaper than hardwood but still comparable. Somebody’s getting rich off the high margins on bamboo if it is so incredibly easy to produce and it grows like a weed. It is a very trendy floor covering. Many bamboo floor companies are making false claims about its sustainability to capitalize and make large profits. There is no fair trade certification on bamboo. This means that the working conditions and wages are not regulated. So not only does bamboo create a negative environmental impact, it also creates a negative social impact for its Chinese workers.

Bamboo Floors

Even though bamboo is not a sustainable resource, it is worth looking at how it holds up as a floor covering. If you go with a lower cost bamboo, there is a very good chance that it will discolor and turn yellow relatively quickly. Also, the lower cost bamboo floors are also prone to scratches very easily. Because it lacks grain and typically has a glossy finish, scratches show up extremely clearly. Manufacturers sell bamboo on its supposed hardness. What they are really doing is using aluminum oxide, which is the hardest finish possible. They think that by using the most durable finish, they are making the bamboo itself stronger. This means that manufacturers are selling bamboo claiming that it is a hard, long-lasting product. No matter how hard the finish, if the “wood” is soft, it will not make the slightest difference. Aluminum oxide will never stand up to the softness of the bamboo product. It will not strengthen bamboo, no matter what the manufacturers tell you. Even if they apply seven or ten coats of aluminum oxide, they are just trying to compensate for a lower quality, soft floor product.

The cheaper varieties of bamboo are not always processed the way they are supposed to be. These bamboo plants are also harvested when they are too immature to make good quality floors. The younger the bamboo is, the softer the floor is going to be. The young bamboo retains a lot of water. If the floor product is not dried properly, it will be prone to shrinking and warping. Also, if bamboo is not treated within three days of being cut, it will mold. This also can make for dull flooring. However, far too often, the bamboo is produced quickly and cheaply. As I said before, there is no regulation for how bamboo is produced and processed so you have to be very careful because you probably will not know what you are getting!

Another thing to be weary of with bamboo flooring is the glue. The glue that most of the bamboo flooring manufacturers use is a urea formaldehyde resin. Most bamboo floors will emit gas. This is a known carcinogen and a serious air pollutant. Many people get headaches and sometimes even nosebleeds from the fumes that bamboo floors emit. This is really toxic stuff. Some companies are within the American health standards but many companies are not. Some manufacturers also sell formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring at a higher cost. If you are going to go with this option, please check it out. Make sure that it really is formaldehyde-free. This sector of the flooring industry is not regulated so this means that your health could be compromised if you don’t do all of your research.

Carbonized Bamboo Floors

Carbonized bamboo is a flooring that has a carbonized finish. It has a dark, amber color. It is produced through a process called carbonization. The longer this process takes, the darker and softer the product will turn out. The traditional way to change the color of bamboo is with heat (carbonization). The sugar contents in the fiber cause the bamboo to darken when they are pressure heated. It is really important to note that pressure heating weakens the bamboo significantly. If you want long-lasting floors, carbonized bamboo is definitely not your answer!

There are two varieties of carbonized bamboo flooring; vertical carbonized bamboo flooring and horizontal bamboo flooring. The difference in these two varieties is their alignment. It is important to note that carbonized bamboo flooring is not designed for high traffic areas like shopping centers or office buildings. These floors are suited only for residential use.

Many people know that carbonized bamboo flooring is not very durable but they still want dark bamboo. A lot of floor manufacturers are coming out with a stained natural bamboo floor variety that is darker. The only reason consumers ever choose carbonized bamboo flooring is for its darker color. The majority of contractors (who are honest!) will advise against carbonized bamboo flooring simply because it is not strong and it will not last very long.

Strand Woven Bamboo Floors

If you decide to go with bamboo flooring, there are some varieties that are better. I still will always choose hardwood given the option. However, many people who have strand woven bamboo floors are quite happy with them. Strand woven bamboo flooring complies with European standards of quality because a lot of the equipment comes from Germany. (This doesn’t mean that how and where the bamboo is grown for this type of flooring complies with American and European standards.)

Strand woven bamboo floors are produced by stripping young Moso or Mao bamboo stalks. The reason why this particular part of the process is environmentally friendly is because 100% of the harvested stalk is used and there is zero waste. These stalks are boiled in a water and boric acid solution. This removes sugars from the stalks which is necessary because sugars attract termites. This boiling process also stops the growth of fungus and mold. Any insects in the bamboo will also be removed. Often, copper sulfate is used to kill any micro-organisms. This stuff is incredibly toxic. Then the strips are dried and woven with an extremely low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) plasticizer or glue. The woven strand is crushed in a 2000-ton heat press and now becomes a strand woven board. This strand woven board is then milled in a laser-guided mill that accurately cuts each board. Every board you receive in your carton should be uniform. After the boards are milled, they are sanded and coated with aluminum oxide finish.

Strand woven bamboo is quite different than other bamboo flooring because it is a one-piece board. A lot of the other stuff is produced by cold-gluing small bamboo strips together. It is tongue and groove. Strand woven bamboo flooring can be installed like any hardwood floor. It is significantly stronger than other bamboo flooring types. This makes strand woven bamboo flooring relatively easy to refinish. Like all bamboo though, it still emits formaldehyde, even if the levels might be slightly lower. Strand bamboo currently uses phenol formaldehyde adhesive and there is no other alternative to date. Another downside to it is that it is known to splinter on the sides of the boards.

Bamboo flooring is really not a viable or a sustainable choice. Manufacturers have capitalized on the trendiness of bamboo. They have really tried hard to convince consumers that it is good for the environment and this is nothing more than a clever sales tactic. Sadly, you cannot trust those bamboo floor manufacturers. After all, they are only out to sell you bamboo floors! There are way more negatives than there are positives that I see. I think one of the biggest negatives is that bamboo flooring is not regulated. But it’s of course your choice and your floor. I am just trying to enlighten you about some of the false claims that you might encounter when you look into bamboo flooring. Just do your research on the manufacturer prior to purchasing your new floor. Always look around. Don’t ever go with the first person ready to sell you anything. See what other companies are offering and how they differ from their competition. If you do decide to go with a bamboo, please make sure that the formaldehyde emitions are low and safe.

Hardwood floors will always outlast bamboo floors if cared for properly. They have been around forever. They don’t require clear-cutting of forests and they don’t destroy habitats as erratically as bamboo. Besides, usually you know what you are getting when you get a hardwood floor! Remember to always consider the environmental and social impact when you do your floors, especially if you are considering bamboo. Also consider the health risk especially if you have kids with the formaldehyde. Hopefully you will stick to good, old hardwood floors!