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The Green Life: How Green is Bamboo?

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July 19, 2012

How Green is Bamboo?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

A friend and I are debating whether bamboo is as environmentally friendly as it's billed to be. Sure, it grows fast. But it has a tremendous carbon footprint since it has to be shipped from overseas. Then again, so do a lot of other kinds of wood. We're wondering if it's just a wash?

--Wendy in Des Plaines, Illinois

It all depends on how — and how far — the bamboo or wood is transported. Ocean vessels emit less than a sixth of the carbon dioxide that big rigs do while moving one ton of stuff the same distance. So it's possible that bamboo shipped in from, say, China could have a smaller footprint than domestically grown wood trucked 1,000 miles, or brought 2,000 miles by rail.

But there are other issues with bamboo: Some operators hack it down prematurely, which can damage the bamboo stand. Also, foreign factories with lax safety standards often use glue containing toxic formaldehyde to bind it. This endangers workers and may pollute indoor air. To get low- or no-formaldehyde bamboo and to support clean manufacturers, check for a "Floorscore" or the Scientific Certification System label. If an item isn't certified, ask the dealer about factory and harvest practices.

Among bamboo's great virtues are, yes, its rapid growth, but also the healthy wildlife habitat it provides, and the fact that it inhales carbon dioxide faster than trees do. Some bamboo aficionados get carried away with simplistic claims about its moral superiority, but in fact, a fair amount of traditional wood is now being harvested and processed sustainably and can be a safe option. Go to the Forest Stewardship Council's website to find retailers that carry cleaner lumber.

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!

--illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

This is a post from Mr. Green's archives. This column originally appeared on August 3, 2011.

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