Eco Wise

Bamboo: Green, With an Asterisk

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Bamboo seems like an environmentalist's dream come true. It's a self-regenerating plant that grows so fast (without pesticides and with little water) that it's considered a weed, and it can be used to make products from furniture to coffee filters.

But bamboo, like most things marketed as "green" these days, isn't perfect. First of all, much of it comes from Asia, so the carbon footprint of shipping it here is not insignificant. And though bamboo absorbs carbon, there is concern that, especially in China, demand for bamboo is leading to the clear-cutting of old-growth forests.

How not to get bamboozled? Do your homework. Until a global certification standard is devised, it's up to companies to use responsible bamboo -- and up to consumers to pay attention and make their preferences known with their wallets.

A few things to keep in mind:

· Bamboo is increasingly popular for clothing, sheets, towels and other textiles. It's silky and cool against the skin and absorbs water well. However, "the process of turning bamboo into yarn uses lots of water and energy and even some harmful chemicals," says Laura Wehrman, owner of Tela Verde, a New York-based company that tracks sustainable textiles for the fashion industry. "That does not meet the definition of sustainability." However, it's still probably less of a planet-taxing alternative than non-organic cotton or polyester, and it has the potential to be greener if manufacturing processes improve.

· Oeko-Tex is a Swiss association that certifies textiles that have met safety and environmental standards. Ask manufacturers if they comply with this standard.

· Plyboo, a bamboo flooring material, is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Look for the council's symbol when seeking out bamboo construction materials.

· Bambu, a line of tableware available at Target and other retailers, is certified organic by a Swiss body, IMO.

The bottom line: Bamboo can be a smart alternative to wood products, but don't assume it's synonymous with sustainability. Check with companies before you buy, and don't buy new if you don't really have to.

-- Eviana Hartman

© 2008 The Washington Post Company