Bamboo Is Not Always "eco-Friendly" To Use In Green Projects - Is Using Bamboo A Boo-Boo?

By: John D. Kaufman

For several decades now, we as San Francisco home owners, contractors, architects, designers and realtors have been told that bamboo is a wonderful material for remodeling projects in that it is very low in cost (relative to hard woods) and ecologically sustainable.

How many of us have attended trade shows in the San Francisco Bay area where bamboo stole the show? These trade shows tout the wonders of using bamboo for everything from flooring to ceilings, waste baskets to coffee table furniture, and even drinking cups more. The cost of many projects could be cut in one third or even one half as bamboo is far less costly (or so we have been told) than comparable hardwoods that were not as versatile nor as eco-friendly. Before the year 2000, much of these facts were true, and no one had any reason to doubt this after several decades of using bamboo for mass industrial uses in buildings.

But around the year 2000, many growers in Asia began harvesting the bamboo stalks at earlier ages than the minimum of five years growth. These younger stalks do not yet have enough strength and durability and are best used in craft projects like basket weaving or clothing. Many homeowners. contractors and designers continued recommending and using bamboo in the early 21st century totally unaware of the results to follow.

Today, in 2010, there still are large quantities of bamboo imported into the United States each year. How many of us can tell bamboo (or bamboo derived materials) that are more than five years in age? How many of us can tell bamboo that is younger than five years of age? Probably no one can. Therein lies the problem all of us face in choosing bamboo for our next "eco friendly" project! No one can tell. Well, actually we can tell after several years of wear and tear - but who would want to waste thousands of dollars (or risk thousands of dollars waiting) if the bamboo begins to decompose several years after installation?

Perhaps in several years there will be a bamboo rating system so that those of us who choose to use bamboo for its potential strength and beauty, not to mention its functionality. May I suggest that the rating system be simple to include only three categories: A "harvested at 5 years or older from a verifiable source/ documented"; B "harvested under 5 years and therefore not of durable strength for most projects"; and C "source or harvest age unknown". In this way the buyer can have some sort of confidence up front at the start of a project that they are truly using an eco friendly material or not.

Until that time, I will continue to admire bamboo, but I will not encourage my own clients to use it in any projects expecting long term durability, nor as a substitute for hardwood flooring. Maybe it is best used only as an attractive live landscaping plant until further notice!

If you would like further information about bamboo and ways to begin a simple easy to classify system that can easily be internationally accepted, write me. My contact information is below. The first step is for a large bamboo harvesting plantation in China to start a documentation process. Documented bamboo, fetching far more in revenues (as if it were "organic produce") will be the impetus for change. Even if change comes slowly, many home owners, builders, and designers will happily step to the front of the line for a truly certified quality building material. Bamboo deserves a place in every home. But first, let's at least know the age of the material when harvested.