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How Green Is Bamboo?

You're installing wood floors in your home and you want to do something that is eco-friendly, so you decide to look into bamboo flooring.

Bamboo is a hot seller these days, available at Home Depot, Lowe's, Floors & More and other outlets around the valley. It's billed as an eco-friendly alternative to wood because bamboo is a fast-growing grass, making it a renewable resource that eases forest devastation. The better grades of bamboo (there are low grades that can cause problems) rival the best woods when it comes to hardness, and the price is competitive with wood.

For all of these reasons, bamboo can be a good choice, but before you slap down the cash, you may want to ask a deeper series of questions to determine whether bamboo meets your personal definition of "green."

Most bamboo is imported from China, where labor and environmental practices may be in question. In many cases, Chinese forests are being cleared to make way for bamboo farms. Because of global shipping, bamboo carries hidden energy costs. And because it is a foreign product, local economies are affected when you choose bamboo over a regional alternative.

Mark Stella, owner of Green Mountain Woodworks in Talent, carries bamboo products, along with a wide assortment of reclaimed, recycled and sustainably harvested wood products. If a customer starts their conversation by saying, "I want to do something that is green, so I want to buy bamboo," Stella has some questions of his own.

"For me, the conversation is, 'What do you mean by green?'" Stella says. "For some people it's just the trees. For some people it's an attempt to improve the region. If someone really wants bamboo, it's not a problem. We sell bamboo. It's a beautiful material with a very unique look. But if their point is to do something green, for me that's just the start of the conversation."

First and foremost, a buyer needs to work within a framework that incorporates price and esthetics, so they are buying a product that fits their circumstance and the look they want. Within that framework comes a consideration of the type of material, grade, width, cost and other factors.

Eric Watson, owner of Floors & More in Medford, says most of the people who inquire about bamboo flooring are motivated by bamboo's reputation as a green alternative to wood.

"It's one of the more renewable resources," says Watson. "Because it's a grass, it's got a harvest time of six or seven years, where wood takes a lot longer."

While the less expensive grades of bamboo start around $1.99 per square foot, Watson doesn't recommend buying them. "You're asking for more trouble in the long run than it's going to be worth," he says.

"The goal is to juggle all of those factors to see what suits you," Stella says. For most people, eco-status is not a factor. For others, it is paramount. If eco-status is important, companies like Green Mountain can offer a range of options that save trees while also supporting the regional economy and protecting native forests.

Green Mountain, for instance, offers woods that come from sustainable forestry projects, such as trees that have been thinned to make the overall forest healthier. Some woods come from urban recovery, where backyard ornamental trees are milled for lumber rather than burned or dumped. Recycled and reclaimed woods from demolished buildings are possible choices, along with Northwest native woods that produce local jobs while reducing energy depletion from transportation. If wood isn't the answer, alternative materials such as cork and bamboo are options.

"It's valuable and important to have this kind of dialogue at the point of sale, where people are deciding what products to buy," Stella says. "This is where the rubber meets the road, where you can decide what you are supporting."

Mark Stella of Green Mountain Woodworks in Talent. - David Smigelski