As building codes become more stringent and consumers more discerning, greener building products are enjoying increased popularity. With sustainability and energy conservation as great motivators, consumers are turning to green building materials to save them money. While leaps and bounds in technological advancements that have brought us such modern wonders as spray foam insulation and ICF building blocks, not all green building products are as environmentally friendly as they seem.
Bamboo building products (especially flooring) have been steadily gaining traction as an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional hardwood options and it’s easy to see why. Not only is bamboo durable and attractive, it is also able to regenerate within ten years, which makes it an extremely sustainable resource.
A Dovetail Partners study of the Chinese industry revealed that bamboo poses several serious environmental threats. From their report: “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.”
Since 2002, bamboo has been included by USGBC in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2.1 standard as a renewable, environmentally-friendly building material.
Thanks to this increased popularity, bamboo production has enjoyed unprecedented growth in the more tropical areas of China. While this has resulted in social upliftment in many traditionally poor agricultural regions, it has spelt disaster for the environment. The many different species of bamboo found in traditional forests have been lost in favor of the Moso bamboo which is best for farming.
Many natural forests have been clearcut to make way for bamboo farms resulting in a devastating loss of biodiversity. With monoculture in progress, the soil quickly becomes depleted and farmers have turned to fertilizers to increase yields. 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.” Pesticides are also being used to increase yields and many plantations require irrigation.
Revised LEED standards stipulate that bamboo must be farmed in plantations that comply with the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, but the prohibitive cost means that most bamboo plantations remain uncertified. FSC-certified bamboo products are available, but these have come under fire for approving bamboo grown on large monoculture plots
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.”