Bamboo: Good or Bad for the Environment

bamboo photoThese days everyone is talking about bamboo. From walls to flooring, bamboo is regaled as the environmental answer to wood. Bamboo flooring is commonplace from showrooms to homes, and the building community expects that it will be used in plywood next. Just think, tomorrow your garage doors could be constructed with the renewable source.

Environmentalists love it for its quick growth and for the fact that it can be harvested without harming the environment. However, the downsides of bamboo are now being scrutinized as its popularity grows and expands throughout the world of home construction. Some of those concerns include biodiversity, soil erosion, and chemical use.

Bamboo is technically a grass and is native to South America, all parts of Asia, as well as northern Australia and areas of the southeast United States. It’s touted for its strength, hardness, and fast growth rate. For builders, bamboo has more compressive strength than concrete and the same strength-to-weight ratio as steel in tension. Also, it grows much faster than trees.

Almost all of the bamboo used in the United States is grown in China. Some of the bamboo plantations there date back hundreds of years, and most of the world’s population uses the grass in some form. Bamboo is common in housing for flooring, in construction as support poles, and in household implements like chopsticks or cutting boards. The fact of the matter is that bamboo is flourishing.

A positive aspect of bamboo is that it can be harvested without killing the plant. A decade ago farmers cleared virgin forest in order to plant their bamboo farms. The profitability of bamboo surpassed the profit of rice and other kinds of farming. This hasn’t been the case in recent years, but a bamboo plantation doesn’t have the biodiversity of a natural forest. Given its invasive nature, bamboo can also quickly take over a nearby forest.

The clearing of forest also incited concerns over soil erosion as did newly planted fields, especially on steep slopes. Researchers found, though, that planting bamboo along river banks helped decrease erosion. Once the grass was established on farms, erosion decreased there as well.

The downside to bamboo lies in its construction. Instead of being cut and used whole, like wood, bamboo is sliced into pieces and glued together. There are serious questions regarding health and safety surrounding how the bamboo is handled and the chemical components used to glue and seal it. Currently there are no standardized requirements for its construction or the glue holding it together. In fact, rates of strength and hardness vary from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on supplier, and the glue can contain formaldehyde and be harmful to the environment.

Although planting and harvesting bamboo may not impact the environment negatively, the handling of it certainly can. In six years there has been little done to ensure that it’s safe for handlers or the people that manufacture it. There is still lots of room for improvement and debate of bamboo.

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Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by mike lowe

National Forum talks with Doris M. Meissner. (Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner) (Interview)

National Forum June 22, 1994 Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service Doris Meissner became Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on October 18, 1993. Before that, she was a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1986-1993, and she also served as Executive Associate Commissioner of the INS from 1982-1985. Following is a conversation National Forum had with her on June 8, 1994.

National Forum: First, what would you consider your top three or four goals to accomplish while you are Commissioner of the INS?

Doris Meissner: As I said at my confirmation hearing, my goals are to improve the professionalism of the agency, to have INS carry out its programs so that it achieves control with compassion, and for the INS to become an agency that exercises credible leadership where immigration policy is concerned.

NF: The lawsuits filed recently by the governors of California and Florida have brought the controversy of illegal immigration to the fore. What is your opinion of the lawsuits, and do the states that bear the greatest burden warrant special compensation from the federal government? What would the INS role be in such a situation? go to site immigration and naturalization

Meissner: It is generally agreed that these are political lawsuits that lack strong legal underpinnings. However, they do raise policy issues because while immigration is a federal prerogative and responsibility, the effects of immigration are disproportionately felt at the local and state levels. Moreover, immigration is very unevenly distributed around the country, it concentrates in just six or seven states. Therefore, issues of cost-sharing need to be looked at much more carefully today than in the past. INS’s role would be to provide accurate information about the size of the undocumented population and the distribution of it, and on the size and makeup of the legal immigrants’ population–the numbers and where the legal immigrants live. I don’t see INS getting into compensation itself or distribution formulae–that’s basically an OMB responsibility. But we are the repository in the government for information on immigrants, where they are and who they are, and that information would be critical.

NF: People are viewing illegal immigration from Mexico with increasing alarm. Would you like to comment on some of the measures Governor Pete Wilson in California is urging, such as the Constitutional Amendment to deny citizenship status to children of illegal aliens and also measures to deny social services to illegal aliens?

Meissner: First of all it is important to start with the facts, and those are that the size of the illegal population is about 3.8 million and that number increases at the rate of about 300,000 a year. For a country with more than 250 million people, that is not a huge number. But it is a number of concern more because of where the undocumented population is concentrated. About 1.6 million of those people who are undocumented are in the State of California, so that state does have some real issues. However, the number of undocumented in California, even though 1.6 million is substantial, is somewhat less than the numbers Gov. Wilson has been charging.

Of that undocumented population, only part of it, 39 percent, is Mexican, and a total of about half are people who came across the Southwest border; in other words, they came not only from Mexico but from other parts of Latin America. But the other half of the undocumented population is illegal in that they got here with a visa and overstayed the terms of their visa. Thus, when one is talking about combatting illegal immigration, it is not only a Southwest border issue. It is an issue of our consulates abroad and of our airport controls and of people who by and large legitimately get visas–either as visitors or as foreign students, or people who are coming for temporary training and do not return when they are supposed to return. And they come from many, many countries.

The second thing is that in talking about responses to illegal immigration, obviously the most effective response is to prevent it in the first place, if at all possible. That is why the administration has been working very hard on border-related issues so that we are at the front end, preventing entry when it should not be occurring. The incentive for getting here or for overstaying is overwhelmingly to be able to work here; it is not to be able to go to the welfare office and get AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children]. So the problem of illegal immigration within the country centers in the workplace, with the incentive of jobs for immigrants and the desire among some employers as well as some consumers for the services of illegal immigrants as cheap labor. Because that incentive is the primary issue, enforcement of laws that have to do with barring the employment of illegal immigrants is far more productive when combined with more effective border controls. These two measures are far more effective in my opinion, and in the opinion of the administration, than eliminating citizenship, or having school children report on their neighbors and parents, or some of the proposals we are hearing from California.

NF: On a recent Frontline, you mentioned the possibility of some sort of national ID card that would help to control the inflow of people. Would you like to elaborate on that idea?

Meissner: The weakness where employer enforcement is concerned is that we do not have good systems to verify who they are hiring, and the reason we don’t have good systems–and when I say we, I mean we as a nation–is that we have been unwilling to have people carry ID cards of any kind or have their names in data banks that could be used for employment verification purposes. I was speculating in the Frontline piece that it is my prediction that because of the need to verify who is getting health care if we have a new health-care system–there will need to be either a card or some other kind of verification system that will come to be used for a variety of reasons, and employment where immigration is concerned will evolve as one of those reasons.

NF: Sort of a plastic social security card?

Meissner: Right. And of course the big issue is the validity of the data that is behind it and the security of the card from the standpoint of it not being able to be counterfeited.

NF: Most economists argue that immigrants of any kind, legal or illegal, are a net plus to the economy, but some people are arguing now that this is not true, that the cost of providing services to them is much more than what they bring to the nation. What would you say about that?

Meissner: By and large, at a “macro” level, the amount of money paid into taxation systems and the productivity of immigrants for the nation overall is a net plus. At any “micro” level, such as a county or a neighborhood, the impact of immigrants can be a net drain. However, all of us–Americans and non-Americans–are a net drain at the local level. The way our taxation system is set up, and the way our service delivery systems are set up, the revenues that are collected are less than the amount paid out in services. These are very difficult calculations to make with real certainty. I think that what we need to face up to at the federal level–and indeed we are taking it seriously–is that there are certain parts of the country and certain states where the impact is very heavy and where the federal government needs to take more responsibility for helping out with that impact. see here immigration and naturalization

But in what amounts that would actually occur, and with what trade-offs from other forms of payment and services, that already are being provided by the federal government, that is really the battleground.

NF: One of our writers discusses the fact that in the past, laws often have been levied against certain groups of immigrants that clearly have been racist in intent–for example, on Chinese immigrants at one time. Some have called recent policies on Haitian immigrants racist. Do you think that there are vestiges of that in the system, and how does INS feel about that? What needs to be done?

Meissner: There is no question that we have a history in this country where immigration law has favored groups, and by implication therefore has disfavored other groups. Until 1965, we had an immigration law that was based on national origin, and those national origins quotas were calculated specifically to perpetuate streams of immigrants from Europe and very severely limit streams of immigrants from Asia. So this is quite recent in our history. At present, immigration law is intended by and large to be nationality neutral. However, some aspects of the current law do not conform to that general principle. Perhaps one of the more difficult examples–difficult from the standpoint of somebody like me at the INS who is responsible for implementing the laws–is the Cuban Adjustment Act, which singles out Cubans among all nationality groups and says that if a Cuban arrives in the United States and is here for one year, he or she may automatically obtain permanent residence. In other words that person may obtain a green card. No other nationality group has that privilege. Cubans mostly come to Florida and are from the Caribbean and most Haitians also come to Florida if they can get out.

The fact that there is a law that favors Cubans over all other groups does not mean that we discriminate against Haitians, but we do favor Cubans, and that has a discriminatory effect. That situation shows comparisons in a very dramatic way. Also, in amendments passed in the 1990 immigration law, some visas added into that law were termed “diversity visas,” which were an attempt to encourage immigration from parts of the world that had been underrepresented. So there are extra visas in the law for some European countries, which borders on a favoritism policy as well. These are things that Congress does that reflect domestic constituency interests, and that thus become part of the immigration law. And we are responsible for carrying out Congress’s will.

NF: One of the big news stories in the last year has been the bombing of the Trade Center. Related news stories have talked about the problem of people (including potential terrorists) coming in, claiming political asylum and then disappearing. Do you envision the political asylum rules changing or being modified to address this problem?

Meissner: They are being changed. The INS has proposed a dramatic reform of the asylum system that has been published in a regulation that is out for comment. Actually, I think that the comment period just closed and that we are going over the comments now. A final rule that streamlines the system will be published and implemented by October 1, 1994. If Congress passes the president’s budget, significant additional resources will be coming into the INS to implement that new system. Basically it will mean doubling our asylum officer resources to deal more effectively with the case load.

NF: Would you like to discuss how NAFTA eventually will affect immigration?

Meissner: Over the long term NAFTA’s effects should be to dramatically decrease the disparity of living standards between Mexico and the United States so that the pressure to migrate illegally from Mexico to get a better life will disappear. These changes may take from ten to twenty years. In the shorter term, and most of us live in the shorter term obviously, for the next ten to fifteen years, migration problems from Mexico will continue even as NAFTA is taking effect. What NAFTA will do and is doing is stimulate growth in Mexico, but even though growth is being stimulated in Mexico, a great deal of development will be occurring that will be disruptive within Mexico. Very large numbers of young people will be coming into the labor market in Mexico every year, and if you run the numbers, more people are coming into the labor market than there will be job generation. So, even though NAFTA is the long-term answer, in the short term there is no reason to believe that migration pressures will abate.

NF: A story was related to us recently–and I know that you have heard such stories before–of a couple who made approximately twenty-five trips to an INS office in Atlanta before obtaining their green cards. Is this a prevalent problem? Does INS have plans to streamline the process?

Meissner: I hope that situation is atypical. Unfortunately, people have had some very bad experiences. I hope that fewer and fewer of those cases are occurring. This agency has a dramatically spiraling workload and a real array of responsibilities to carry out, and very, very large volumes of people we deal with, literally millions of people–in many contexts, on the borders, in the district offices, people coming through our airports, and so forth. It is a very difficult management challenge, with extraordinary numbers of transactions that occur everyday. That being said, the agency historically has been very slow to modernize, and has not been particularly visionary in looking ahead and in being sensitive to customer needs. It is also an agency that typically has not received a great deal of Congressional support or government funding to make the changes that are needed. So, there is a real retrofitting agenda that needs to be pursued here. The current administration’s focus on re-inventing government provides a broader govemmental framework within which the INS can come a long way in addressing these historical problems. Value, from a public administration standpoint, is now being placed on agencies revitalizing themselves as organizational entities.

We have a number of initiatives underway. In fact, the asylum regulations that I mentioned earlier really are a reinventing of the asylum system; we take a system that had eleven or twelve major steps in it, all of them time consuming and paper intensive, and we have reduced it by more than half to five essential steps. We need to do that kind of bottom up review on a whole range of fronts in the organization; that is a multi-year agenda, but it is one that we have underway.

NF: If there were one thing that you wanted to be sure that our readers understood about your philosophy on immigration policy, what would that be?

Meissner: My philosophy is that we are a nation of immigrants and that we should remain a nation of immigrants. It is the responsibility and the policy of this administration to support legal immigration and to prevent illegal immigration. In that context, it is the job of the INS to regulate immigration processes in ways that build public confidence so that we can continue to maintain a generous legal immigration policy as a nation.

About the Author

is a green and general blog writer. He also maintains a personal cooking blog. Find Chris on Google
  • azsmidee

    I have been involved with bamboo off and on for the past 10 years…our world would be so much better if everyone grew bamboo and industrial hemp……might even save a little of the rain forest….

  • Mashiur

    Environmentalism is a
    broad philosophy, ideology and social movement regarding concerns for
    environmental conservationand improvement of the health
    of the environment, particularly as the measure
    for this health seeks to incorporate the concerns of non-human elements




    going green


  • Gib

    The article is a simplistic view written by someone with little knowledge of  bamboo  forestry and economy. I take issue with generalizing about farmers cutting virgin forest in order to plant bamboo. This is an unusual case as any virgin forest would be cut for its standing timber value not the excuse to plant bamboo. Perhaps, in China, there is some misguided incentive program for this?

    In my 40 years as a bamboo professional, I see bamboo plantations being planted on existing farm or range land. In the case of natural bamboo stands that exist in forests, some companies are harvesting these native bamboos while at the same time reforesting increase its natural range. In many areas in Central and South America native bamboo species are losing habitat to the “agricultural frontier” before ever given a chance of being utilized in a sustainable way.

    Gib Cooper, Executive Director, Bamboo of the Americas (BOTA)

  • Daniel Clason

    The good/bad argument too often associated with the bamboo industry misses the point completely. Bamboo is a potentially incredible substitute for timber products of all kinds–this has become obvious in the past 15 years.As a raw material it also has the potential to contribute to the development of new products and technologies just like hemp, and kenash have in the past and still do.But not all bamboo products are sustainable. Just like all shade grown coffee is not necessarily traded fairly, nor are all electric cars more efficient than gas cars, and not all carbon credits are real….. To determine the sustainability of a individual product demands rigorous investigation of the details of cultivation, harvest, chain of custody, manufacturing, shipping, distribution, resins used finishes employed as well as chemicals added.  All these factors need to be consider when determining the environmental impact of any product.  It is the customer job, ultimately, to research products before making purchases.  It i also the job of the media  and consumer specialists to offer a more holistic conversation on the subject.The danger of the good bamboo/ bad bamboo discussion is that like any discussion of this kind, it fails to ask the hard questions associated with choosing products for our future. Bamboo is not inherently sustainable, period!  it is a raw material like any other that can be miss used, poorly grown, over harvested and inefficiently processed. On the other hand, for all the reasons mentioned above, it is a incredible plant with amazing properties that when properly managed and processed can produce some very good products.  Lets move beyond the discussion of bamboo=sustainable as its a simplification of the facts.  Lets work on making the industry as sustainable as possible and pass laws that help consumers decided on best practices so the industry as a whole can grow in a healthy way.  


    Am a new entrant to this cause,i want plant bamboo along the river bank for stablisation factors,pleae advise me

  • toren

    this argument makes no sense. in the argument they say that the chemicals used to form bamboo planks are harmful to the environment but that’s not a problem with the bamboo, that’s a problem that WE are causing and why would we half to turn bamboo into planks to build stuff oh ya WE DON’T! people in countries that are much more pore than us build houses out of bamboo in its original form not stupid planks