Fast-growing bamboo offers 'green' option

Technically a grass, not a tree, and sustainable, it makes a good floor material

You're putting in a new floor. You want wood. But you don't want to mow down a forest and feel guilty. You also would like to brag that you did it up green and used something called "eco-timber."

What's eco-timber? It's wood that's good for the environment because it's sustainable, renewable, low-impact, doesn't have to be flown across half the world and doesn't exploit Third-World labor, even if they do need the money.

Because fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming, you can buy wood grown in the Northwest and get some green cachet, because it's not shipped very far, says Mark Stella of Green Mountain Woodworks in Talent.

As you can see, you're stepping into a controversial, highly political area, but if you can hit a couple of the above targets — and get wood that's certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), you're being green. Or at least lime.

A good stepping-off point is bamboo. You get bamboo flooring and guess what? It's not a tree! It's considered a grass and if you have some planted in your yard, you know it's about as fast-growing as it gets. In other words, sustainable, renewable.

They pulverize into strips, but it looks like pine and a lot of people think it's exotic and esthetic. You can also get bamboo with vertical grain, bundled like a pack of straws and compressed and glued.

Bamboo sold at Phoenix Organics (see correction below) in Phoenix is sustainably harvested, meaning it's assembled without toxic urea-formaldehyde binders — and the work force, in China, is treated humanely, said manager Ajip Sindh. You want to buy solid bamboo, not laminated to some other wood, as that will crack in our moisture extremes, he added.

Bamboo starts at $5 a square foot, cheaper than most other woods, and, with a 400-square foot living room, doing it yourself, materials might run $1,200, says Gregory Hartley, a layer of floors in Ashland.

"Bamboo is considered green. Its comparable in cost to pine or fir, cheaper than teak and it's usually blonde, though they can oxidize it to a teak color," says Hartley.

Cheaper bamboo can be found on the Internet, but Sindh cautions that it will be made of short pieces that lack the hardness of bamboo grown longer than six years. Older bamboo comes in minimum 6-foot lengths, he says.

He says he encourages people to finish their wood with water, not oil base products, because you can get low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) that won't off-gas and give you indoor air pollution. Water-based finish doesn't last as long, maybe two to five years, about half of oil-based, but that's the price of being green.

Green is "in" but only about one in 20 people ask for green products as yet, says Hartley, who tries to get people to avoid rain forest woods and think in terms of buying less-traveled wood from the Northwest. Pacific maple is considered green, as it grows back fast, he notes.

"For me," says Mark Stella, "green means bio-degradable, zero-waste material from where I live, with no transportation from the other side of the world — small and family-owned, preferably, instead of corporate and keeping the money in my bioregion."

Under the green umbrella, Stella places madrone, tan oak, Oregon white oak, California black oak, Douglas fir and bigleaf maple — as long as they're grown and harvested sustainably, as testified to by FSC certification, a process that enables purchasers to trace the "chain of custody" of wood back to its source if they want to.

At the point, FSC wood is hard to find, "kind of like organic food 20 years ago," Stella says, adding that the environmental credentials of bamboo growers in China are not impeccable.

"Bamboo is a great product," says Stella. "There's a lot of hype about it, saying it's green because it grows fast, but if I analyze it, I'd like wood from where I live. If someone comes in here and says 'I want to save the world and I want bamboo,' then we have a little conversation."

Another eco-friendly flooring choice is recycled wood, which is hard to come by, something that's reflected in its price.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Correction: The original version of this story included an incorrect name for Phoenix Organics. The name has been corrected in this version.


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