Bamboo: Good or Bad for the Environment

November 27, 2011

These 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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Chris Keenan

is a green and general blog writer. He also maintains a personal cooking blog.