Are Bamboo Building Products Really Green?

As building codes focus on environmentally-friendly materials and clients become more demanding, many builders are turning to greener products. The wood industry is one of the Bamboo Building Productsleading renewables and has had many decades to perfect its sustainability with certifications and controlled plantations. Many newer products on the market, like bamboo, make lofty promises of sustainability but can actually be quite harmful to the environment.

A recent study by Dovetail Partners revealed that the Chinese bamboo industry portrays itself as sustainable and green, but in reality poses several concerning environmental issues: “Problems reported throughout bamboo-producing regions included clearing of natural forests for establishment of bamboo plantations; creation of monoculture plantations; loss of biodiversity; substantial use of fertilizers and pesticides despite claims that bamboo crops required neither of these treatments; and unsustainable harvesting of natural stands of bamboo.”

Bamboo has a long history in construction and today, more than one billion people live in homes constructed of this resilient species of grass. Bamboo was introduced as a flooring option in the late 1990’s, but met with an icy reception despite its beauty and the fact that it is as strong as hardwood. This changed in 2002 when the USGBC included bamboo flooring as a renewable, environmentally-friendly materials in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2.1 standard.

Within three years, Chinese production of bamboo flooring had increased significantly and non-certified bamboo became a widely accepted green alternative.

Effects of Bamboo Farming on the Environment

The effects of the bamboo industry on the environment have been devastating in many parts of China. Here are some of the salient points from the Dovetail study.

  • Biodiversity has been affected as only one kind of bamboo (moso bamboo) is being farmed. Many of the natural bamboo forests have been overharvested and many varieties of bamboo and other plants have been removed leaving only moso bamboo.
  • Bamboo farming has been successful in improving the economies of some provinces and this has led to widespread razing of natural forests to make way for bamboo.
  • Artificial pesticides and fertilizers are used on bamboo crops to increase yields. These chemical additives leach into ground water, rivers and streams. Maoyi and Xiaosheng (2004): “As a fast-growing plant, bamboo consumes substantial quantities of nutrients. It is estimated that, on average, farmers annually apply 200kg (440 pounds) of fertilizer (mainly nitrogen) per hectare to bamboo plantations.”
  • Bamboo grows in tropical conditions and needs to be irrigated regularly which consumes valuable water resources.

While the new LEED standard requires bamboo to be farmed in plantations that comply with the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, the majority of bamboo products remain uncertified. FSC-certified products are available, but the cost of certification means few farmers pursue this route. This certification has also come under fire for approving bamboo grown on large monoculture plots. The blanket green status awarded to all bamboo construction materials should be revisited and third-party certification must be instituted before this can be considered a truly sustainable material.

The Dovetail study concludes: “…bamboo products should never be designated as environmentally preferable materials without at the very least requiring careful consideration of environmental impacts throughout the entire supply chain. It is time for all players in the green building arena to replace rapid renewability credits with a bit of common sense”

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