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Is bamboo really green, or are we being bamboozled with greenwashing?

Bamboo is grass, that was once best known here in the United States for panda food and fishing rods.

A study brought to our attention on the Norwood blog reports on a Dovetail Partners study that criticises and recommends closer scrutiny of what has become the bamboo industry.

To put things in perspective, Norwood “is an international producer of wood-based panels.” Norwood products include subflooring, sheathing and roof panels. Obviously, in many ways bamboo competes with traditional wood. But that does not mean we should totally ignore or discount findings about bamboo.

There are many plants that grow in harmony with nature and have wonderful properties that feed and help people live well. The problems often come through making industries of these products. Many food staples, such as corn and wheat, have become single-varietal monocultures heavily managed and treated with fertilizers and pesticides. Growing these crops often radically changes natural landscapes. We have written before about the decimation of Ohio’s forest, so dense that they were once thought impenetrable. The great plains saw the death of grasslands and long-gone are most midwestern prairies. Farms replaced most of these natural landscapes.

The same is true of our building products. Critics have long denounced the clear-cutting of old-growth forests and growing forests that rely on carefully-managed single-species trees clearcut and harvested at regular intervals.

These days we can choose certified wood products and organically-farmed food. In some places, conservationists are working to restore examples of the natural landscapes, such as prairies that once existed.

The accusations, thus are similar for the industrialization of bamboo production. Norwood says, “Many newer products on the market, like bamboo, make lofty promises of sustainability but can actually be quite harmful to the environment.”

The Dovetail Partners study is called Bamboo Products and their Environmental Impacts: Revisited. Lead author Jim Bowyer writes that Dovetail investigated bamboo's environmental attributes in 2005 and had concerns about the material’s growing, harvesting and manufacturing processes. The fear was that the industrialization of bamboo had caused natural forests to be cleared for bamboo plantations. Plantations resulted in loss of biodiversity as well as fertilizer and pesticide use. The conclusion was that bamboo products needed serious re-evaluation and third-party certification of green status.

Now, in 2014, there is another report that focuses on bamboo production in China. “In this report, we revisit bamboo products and environmental impacts associated with their production and use. We also provide updated information regarding availability of certified bamboo products and their performance. This report focuses on bamboo production in China, which has by far the largest and fastest growing bamboo industry.”

Once again, the report speaks of the decimation of richly biodiverse forests to create monoculture -- moso bamboo -- bamboo plantations. Bamboo cultivation includes “substantial” fertilizer and pesticide use “despite claims that bamboo crops required neither of these treatments; and unsustainable harvesting of natural stands of bamboo.”

The report states, “Bamboo has a long history in construction and today, more than one billion people live in homes constructed of this resilient species of grass. Bamboo was introduced as a flooring option in the late 1990’s, but met with an icy reception despite its beauty and the fact that it is as strong as hardwood. This changed in 2002 when the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) included bamboo flooring as a renewable, environmentally-friendly material in its Leadership in energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2.1 Standard.”

China quickly leapt into the bamboo production business, improving the economies of some of its provinces, much as farming and forestry have contributed to U.S. prosperity.

The report criticizes not only the use of fertilizers and pesticides that leach into groundwater but also the need to irrigate bamboo. Here in the U.S., the same claims are made regarding mining and agricultural run off.

“While the new LEED standard requires bamboo to be farmed in plantations that comply with the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, the majority of bamboo products remain uncertified. FSC-certified products are available, but the cost of certification means few farmers pursue this route. This certification has also come under fire for approving bamboo grown on large monoculture plots. The blanket green status awarded to all bamboo construction materials should be revisited and third-party certification must be instituted before this can be considered a truly sustainable material.”

Bottom line? Just as many of us scrutinize the source of what we eat and what we wear, we need to bring the same high level of scrutiny to what materials we choose to build our homes. Regular grocery stores and even Walmart now have organic food because enough customers wanted the healthy products. As more people ask that certified bamboo products be chosen, more growers and manufacturers will comply to meet demand.