EarthTalk: I’ve noticed that bamboo is
very trendy right now, apparently—in part—for
environmental reasons. Can you enlighten?
-- Eric M., via e-mail
environmental benefits are numerous in relation to
wood and other resources, and today's heightened eco-awareness
has given sales of bamboo flooring, clothing, building
materials and other items a huge boost. Pictured:
a new finished bamboo living room floor.
© library_chic, courtesy Flickr
has a long history of economic and cultural significance,
primarily in East Asia and South East Asia where it has
been used for centuries for everything from building material
to food to medicine. There are some 1,000 different species
of bamboo growing in very diverse climates throughout the
world, including the southeastern United States.
environmental benefits arise largely out of its ability
to grow quickly—in some cases three to four feet per
day—without the need for fertilizers, pesticides or
much water. Bamboo also spreads easily with little or no
care. In addition, a bamboo grove releases some 35 percent
more oxygen into the air than a similar-sized stand of trees,
and it matures (and can be replanted) within seven years
(compared to 30-50 years for a stand of trees), helping
to improve soil conditions and prevent erosion along the
way. Bamboo is so fast-growing that it can yield 20 times
more timber than trees on the same area.
heightened consumer environmental awareness has given sales
of bamboo flooring, clothing, building materials and other
items a huge boost.
an attractive and sturdy alternative to hardwood flooring,
bamboo is tough to beat. According to Pacific Northwest
green building supplier Ecohaus, bamboo—one of the
firm’s top selling flooring options—is harder,
more moisture resistant and more stable than even oak hardwoods.
Ecohaus carries both the EcoTimber and Teragren brands of
bamboo, and ships worldwide.
is also making waves in the clothing industry as an eco-chic
and functional new fabric. Softer than cotton and with a
texture more akin to silk or cashmere, bamboo clothes naturally
draw moisture away from the skin, so it’s great for
hot weather or for sweaty workouts. It also dries in about
half the time as cotton clothing.
critics point out that the process of converting bamboo
to fabric can take a heavy environmental toll, with the
most cost-effective and widespread method involving a harsh
chemical-based hydrolysis-alkalization process followed
by multi-phase bleaching. The Green Guide counters, though,
that bamboo still has a much lower environmental impact
than pesticide-laden conventional cotton and petroleum-derived
nylon and polyester fabrics. Consumers interested in trying
out bamboo clothing should look for the Bamboosa and EcoDesignz
labels, two of the leaders in the fast-growing sector of
is also making inroads into the paper industry, though there
are fears that too fast a transition there would threaten
ecologically diverse bamboo forests across Southeast Asia
and elsewhere. The Earth Island Institute, among other groups
concerned about forest loss due to paper consumption, would
instead like to see more research into using agricultural
waste to make paper instead of wood pulp or bamboo. Regardless,
bamboo in all its forms might one day soon be one of the
most important plants in the world.
Green Guide; Bamboosa;
EarthTalk: It is starting to get colder and
I’m eager to try out the fireplace in our new home,
but we don't want to create health or environmental problems.
Are there materials that would be more eco-friendly to burn
in a fireplace than regular firewood?
-- Emily Eidenier, Durham, NC
Fireplace wood smoke contains carbon monoxide, smog-causing
nitrogen oxides, soot, fine particles, and a range
of other chemicals and gases that can cause or worsen
serious health problems. The Children's Health Environmental
Coalition says that children living in wood-burning
households are especially vulnerable.
© Getty Images
may be humanity’s oldest way of generating heat—and
in the home it definitely creates a nice ambience. But it
has its downside. According to the Massachusetts Department
of Environmental Protection, wood smoke “contains
toxic carbon monoxide, smog-causing nitrogen oxides, soot,
fine particles, and a range of other chemicals and gases
that can cause or worsen serious health problems, particularly
among children, pregnant
women, and people with breathing difficulties.”
Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) concurs, citing a
raft of studies that show how children living in wood-burning
households experience “higher rates of lung inflammation,
breathing difficulties, pneumonia, and other respiratory
diseases.” For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency warns that those with congestive heart failure, angina,
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma
should avoid wood smoke if possible. Wood smoke is also
bad for the outdoors environment, contributing to smog,
acid rain and other problems.
One greener alternative
to burning firewood in a fireplace is to burn wood pellets,
which are made from sawdust and other lumber byproducts
that would have otherwise been landfilled and gone to waste.
These specially formulated tiny logs burn very efficiently
and almost completely—largely because there is little
moisture content—so there are fewer pollutants to
escape into the air inside or out. You need a pellet stove
to burn wood pellets, though, or a fireplace insert to handle
them safely. (Such an insert employs an igniter to fire
the pellets, a blower to fan the fire, and an augur that
pours pellets into the flames. Together they obviate the
need to open the stove doors—and let pollutants into
your living room—to feed the fire.)
Another way to
reduce emissions from an existing fireplace is to go for
a gas insert, which would burn either liquid propane (from
a swappable tank) or piped-in natural gas. These inserts
draw in air to oxygenate the fire and channel smoke outside,
either up the chimney or through a vent. CHEC warns, though,
that hearth fires, even with an insert, cannot heat large
spaces as efficiently as free-standing wood, pellet or gas
stoves. Given, then that fireplaces are typically of more
value for aesthetic purposes than heating efficiency, it
might not be worth investing time and money into an insert.
Using the primary heat source for your home (your furnace)
and burning a candle or three in your fireplace might be
the most efficient way to stay warm but still enjoy the
ambience of live flames in your fireplace.
If none of these
alternatives make sense for you, remember to get your fireplace
checked regularly for backdrafts, leaks or cracks that could
bring extra pollution into your home. Also, make sure to
get a chimney sweep in every few years to make sure your
chimney isn’t blocked up with creosote which could
lead to increased indoor air pollution. And if you’re
putting in a new fireplace—or an insert—make
sure to get a qualified professional to do the work, as
proper set-up could be the difference between sickness and
health as you and your loved ones cozy up around the fire
this holiday season.
Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC).
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