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Splendor in The Fast-Frowing Grass

It's not just for cheap dorm-room shades: Bamboo is the new manna from sustainability heaven

September 25, 2005|David Lasker | David Lasker is a Toronto-based journalist and associate editor of Canadian Interiors.

Environmentally correct, sustainable bamboo is emerging as a "green" alternative in flooring, tableware and even fashion design.

In the world of fashion in particular, Los Angeles is at bamboo's leading edge. Artist-couturier Linda Loudermilk featured images of tree branches at her Paris runway show two years ago, signifying the launch of her precedent-setting luxury eco line, including an array of bamboo-fiber apparel.

"Bamboo is the new cotton," she said in a phone interview from her studio on Sunset Boulevard. "It has all the properties that you physically want out of cotton, plus some. Bamboo is more antibacterial than cotton or wool, which are very absorbent and hold moisture in. Because bamboo wicks moisture away, it's great for your circulation and skin."

Then there are Loudermilk's bamboo accessories, such as the handbag comprising sasawashi--made from the leaf fiber of a bamboo cousin--and a bamboo handle. For the spring season, she will introduce bamboo menswear and jeans lines.

There are about 1,200 species of bamboo, which is among the most widely used plant on earth. Some species of bamboo resist stretching better than steel, so in warm or tropical countries where they grow abundantly, this bamboo often substitutes for steel in the construction of houses, rafts, bridges and scaffolding.

Bamboo isn't actually a wood at all, but a generally hollow grass that renews itself in seven years or less--and doesn't require pesticides. This is one of the reasons bamboo is so attractive to environmentalists: Certain subtropical species can grow from a foot to more than three feet per day, and it's not unusual for them to reach 100 feet. It's like sustainability on steroids. Proper harvesting causes no more harm to the plant than mowing does to a lawn. And because it is a grass, bamboo is free of knots, which affect the stability of wood.

Bamboo is nature's total-use product. Split and flattened culms (the distinctive jointed bamboo stems) are made into baskets, mats, hats and fish traps. The pulp can be made into paper. Branches yield water pipes, brooms, chopsticks and musical instruments; in 2000, Yamaha introduced a laminated-bamboo guitar. Bamboo splits perfectly straight and thin, making it perfect for fishing rods. Leftover pieces make firewood. Gourmets eat the tender young shoots. The leaves make animal fodder.

Thin planks can be made by splitting culms into strips and heating and gluing the layers. The process used to make engineered bamboo products is not unlike the ones employed to make particle board or plywood. The problem for some environmentalists is that some of the binders used in the process contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehydes. The World Health Organization has identified these formaldehydes as carcinogens. There are two types of formaldehydes used in the processes. Urea formaldehyde is the most toxic, both at point of production and for installers and consumers. Phenol formaldehyde, while equally toxic at point of production, poses a negligible risk to consumers.

Finding out what binders were used and whether they contain VOCs or formaldehydes is best done through the manufacturer. You can also chat up knowledgeable salespeople at such stores as Livingreen in Culver City.

On the other hand, choosing bamboo--the right bamboo--is still more green than going with an engineered wood product that has at least an equal toxicity and is not as readily renewable. "Using bamboo certainly protects forests since composition board is an unhealthy choice both for consumers and the forests," says Ted Bardacke, a senior program associate with the environmental organization Global Green USA. "It's a healthy choice as long as consumers educate themselves to buying the right item."

Product testing has revealed that laminated bamboo resists dents better than red oak, the most typical wood flooring, and as well as hard maple, the toughest domestic hardwood flooring used in the United States. Or better, depending on the type of laminated bamboo.

Bamboo retails for about $6 to $10 a square foot and comes in a natural state resembling freshly milled maple, or is carbonized in a heat treatment that changes its color to caramel. It is available in a horizontal lamination, with the wider side of the strips facing upward, presenting a subtle grain that shows the plant's nodes, or knee-like joints. Bamboo also comes vertically laminated, with the narrower sides upward, assembled butcher-block style. This form is actually harder than oak and maple and presents a snake-like stripe reminiscent of ribbon mahogany.

John Samczyk, a cabinet maker at Santa Barbara's Design Studio, has transformed a studio office into a showroom for cabinetry, furniture and flooring made of horizontally laminated bamboo. "We get quite a bit of interest from designers because of the bamboo's three-dimensional look. It almost looks like you can reach in and feel the knuckles."

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