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The environmental downsides of bamboo flooring

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 3/1/2010

Bamboo flooring is very popular and justifiably touted as an eco-friendly alternative to carpet or old-growth hardwood flooring. However, importing bamboo, replacing existing flooring and chemical finishes diminish the sustainability of bamboo flooring.

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    Here is a good article about the environmental and aesthetic benefits of bamboo flooring.

    Most of the arguments are valid, but there are some important environmental downsides to bamboo flooring. Bamboo is not always the most sustainable option for flooring.

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    Replacing floors

    Green is the new black. Sustainability is very trendy, and some people try to improve their green credibility without accounting for the full environmental impact of their decisions. Such a philosophy leads homeowners to replace old hardwood, tiles or other existing flooring with trendy new bamboo boards. However, the hardwoods can usually be refinished instead. Any time an old product is thrown away and replaced, energy is used to create and install the new product. Further, the old product often goes to waste.

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    Embodied energy

    The most significant energy factor for bamboo installation is transport energy. Because of a variety of subsidies and other factors, most product prices do not reflect the embodied energy to get the product to the consumer. Most bamboo flooring used in the United States and Europe comes from China and other Asian countries, so the energy costs of shipping the product might outweigh the benefits of the sustainable, fast-growing wood.

    Furthermore, these Asian countries may not follow U.S. sustainability standards in growing and harvesting the bamboo. If they are cutting down existing forests to meet the rising demand for bamboo, the flooring is really defeating the sustainable purpose.

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    Bamboo is highly touted because it grows quickly with few fertilizers or pesticides. However, large bamboo farms deplete the soil with a widespread monoculture, creating a need for more pesticides and fertilizers.

    On the other end of the bamboo process, there are also chemical problems. Some bamboo flooring companies and installers use harsh chemicals — most are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that can be unhealthy and bad for the environment. Some of these issues can be avoided by seeking out low-VOC sealants and finishes.

    Also, most of the strongest bamboo flooring styles are engineered bamboo boards, which involve more glues, chemicals and processing to engineer bamboo fibers into floorboards. The engineered boards are also the only types of bamboo flooring that can “float” on the subfloor. This makes the solid bamboo flooring harder to install and less flexible in standing up to the elements.