Sustainable Flooring: Bamboo and Cork

By: Joe Cuhaj
Bamboo flooring

Sustainable bamboo flooring, Photo Courtesy DuroDesign, Inc.

If you’re under the impression that environmentally friendly flooring products, such as bamboo and cork, are little more than the latest fad that will soon disappear, then think again. Though very different from each other, both are high quality products that make beautiful and durable floors. In addition, bamboo and cork are easy to install and cost about the same as traditional hardwood.

What Is Sustainable Flooring?

Simply put, sustainable flooring is a material that doesn’t deplete natural resources when harvested. In fact, both bamboo and cork regenerate themselves and can be maintained indefinitely. Below is a comparison on how each is grown and harvested.

Traditional Wood Flooring

    Oak hardwood flooring

  • Sustainable: No
  • Material: Wood (oak, pine, etc.)
  • Maturity: 30-100 years
  • How Harvested: Timber cutting
  • When Harvested: Once at maturity then replanted

Bamboo

    Bamboo flooring

  • Sustainable: Yes
  • Material: Grass
  • Maturity: 5-7 years
  • How Harvested: Cut at ground level
  • When Harvested: Every 5-7 years, regrows from roots

Cork

    Cork flooring

  • Sustainable: Yes
  • Material: Wood Bark
  • Maturity: 25 years
  • How Harvested: Bark is peeled away
  • When Harvested: Every 9-12 years, tree remains alive while bark regenerates

While sustainability is important, a product has to perform well to be a viable alternative. Fortunately, both bamboo and cork have a lot going for them. Here are the pros and cons of each.

Bamboo Flooring

Bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world and is able to grow up to four feet a day. Most commercial bamboo comes from China, along with a few other Asian countries, but it is suitable to be grown in the southeastern United States as well. Advantages of bamboo flooring include:

  • Resembles traditional plank wood flooring
  • Can be installed using glue, nails, or by floating
  • Comes in a variety of colors, both natural and stained
  • Hard and very durable
  • Expands and contracts less than solid hardwood
  • Noisy, doesn’t absorb sound
  • Can bleach if exposed to direct sunlight

While bamboo is considered harder than either oak or maple, the type of bamboo used, the length of time it is allowed to mature, and the way it is processed can all affect hardness. The best flooring is made from Moso or “Mao Zhu” bamboo that has matured for five to six years before harvesting. The stalks can grow up to eight inches in diameter and 75 feet high. After being cut the stalks are split into strips then flattened and dried before being laminated into boards.

Bamboo flooring

Bamboo flooring comes in different shades, Photo Courtesy DuroDesign, Inc.

Bamboo flooring is available in either vertical or flat grain. In vertical grain boards, the strips are oriented with the narrow wall thickness facing up, resulting in a more even grain. Flat grain boards have the strips glued together horizontally giving it a wider more pronounced grain pattern.

Colors for bamboo flooring range from natural light tones to darker carbonized shades of brown to stained products of almost any hue imaginable. Carbonizing is the process of steaming or boiling which causes the natural sugars in bamboo to darken and turn brown. This process can also cause the fibers to soften, resulting in flooring that is not as hard as natural or stained bamboo.

It is also important to consider the quality of the finish and the formaldehyde content of the glue when purchasing bamboo or any flooring. The out-gassing of chemicals from formaldehyde glue has been linked with respiratory problems. Since manufacturing bamboo flooring is a complex process, you should only buy from a reputable dealer that offers a long-term warranty on their products.

Cork Flooring

The cork tree is a type of oak that grows in the Mediterranean countries of Europe with Portugal being the largest producer. It can live for hundreds of years, and the bark is harvested by hand every nine or ten years. Advantages of cork flooring include:

  • Comes in tiles that can be glued down or planks that can be floated
  • Cushions and insulates, feels soft underfoot
  • Available in a variety of natural and stained colors
  • Quiet, reduces noise
  • Can have a very distinctive grain pattern.
  • Spills can stain if not wiped up
  • Sunlight can cause color to fade
Cork flooring

Cork flooring is a soft option for your feet, Photo Courtesy DuroDesign, Inc.

Cork floors are more durable than you might think, and some are still in use after more than 100 years. While it is a very springy material and resistant to dents, it tends to show scratches and scrapes. Due to its soft nature and the fact that it consists of only a thin veneer applied to a tile or plank, it is recommended that cork floors be varnished to protect them.

Much of the cork used for flooring has a bold swirling grain pattern rather than the bland texture of a bulletin board. While this can be seen as a unique and eye-catching design feature, potential home buyers might not share your enthusiasm should you decide to sell your house some day.

The Bottom Line

Bamboo and cork flooring are beautiful green alternatives to traditional hardwood floors. Whichever one you choose, you are sure to enjoy the warmth and beauty it brings for years to come and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping the environment at the same time.

Sustainable Flooring Suppliers

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7 Comments on “Sustainable Flooring: Bamboo and Cork”

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  • DIY: How Hard Is It to Install a Wood Floor? - Danny Lipford Says:
    March 17th, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    […] Sustainable Flooring: Bamboo and Cork […]



  • Glenn Hoffmann Says:
    December 2nd, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    There are glaring errors in the bullet statements about the sustainability factor of wood floors (hardwood). They ARE sustainable when harvested using a select cut method – They will always grow back. Many hardwoods do not need to be replanted (oak, maple, ash etc). Mature trees are cut and younger trees take their place in the canopy. 30 to 100 years for a mature tree is correct. Bamboo, while it grows quickly, is clearcut, must be shipped across the Pacific Ocean, needs to be glued to make a flooring board and the environmental impacts of it’s planting, fertilizing and harvesting in China and Viet Nam have really not been investigated by those trying to sell the product.


  • Official Comment:


    Nicholas Roussos Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 10:48 am

    Ed,

    Some brands of bamboo flooring offer formaldehyde free products, while others tout near zero emission flooring. So check around and be sure to enquire about outgassing from both the glue and the finish used.



  • Ed McDonough Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 7:53 am

    I have a kitchen floor that had been tiled. We are thinking of wood flooring however we like the bamboo write up except for the formaldehyde content of the glue.Is there any way around it?



  • Renate Says:
    September 18th, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    Hi, I have just bought a cedar home and the walls and roof are varnished pine. Do you have any ideas for flooring for the living & kitchen area? I like timber but feel it may be a little overwhelming. Would like to keep away from carpet.
    Thank you



  • fmfmedic Says:
    August 3rd, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Several styles are available from Home Depot, Lowes. Best, full thickness bamboo I found at a place called Costless Carpet. They sell, carpet, tile, stone of all kinds, and both manufactured and natural flooring.



  • chargerplates Says:
    February 29th, 2008 at 2:35 am

    “Bamboo
    Sustainable: Yes
    Material: Grass
    Maturity: 5-7 years
    How Harvested: Cut at ground level
    When Harvested: Every 5-7 years, regrows from roots

    Where to buy??


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