(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

Not all trees are created equal: an ode to cork

What if you could harvest a wood product for flooring without killing a single tree and at the same time protect biodiverse forests and endangered species? On nearly 30,000 square kilometers of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, there is such a place. 

The cork oak forests of the Mediterranean “support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, including endemic plants and endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and – symbol of the Maghreb – the Barbary Deer”, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

A market for cork

My sister, who works as a realtor, told me that a few months ago when she suggested bamboo flooring to a developer as an affordable and sustainable option, he became excited that he could then market his homes as “green”.

Perhaps it should be viewed as progress that developers and builders and buyers now want green homes- the market in the U.S. is expected to grow from $2 to $20 billion over the next five years-, but with the mainstreaming of any movement comes its oversimplification.

It’s so much easier to create a green building checklist with items like bamboo, solar panels, no-VOC paints than to suddenly begin to educate our basically construction-illiterate majority about the importance of a whole systems approach: coordinating passive solar design, good insulation, environment-appropriate materials, etc.

In the United States, there are some new ratings for green home certification- the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification (new for homes, started in 2000 for buildings) and the National Assocation of Homebuilders (NAHB) Green Building Standard – that are attempting to assure that no developer slaps down bamboo floors and calls his units green.

Both standards require minimum points- though that of the NAHB is more relaxed- in areas like: lot design & development, resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality.

Homes off the water, power, sewage, food grids

I won’t attempt to cover a topic like whole systems approach in a blog though I will point to examples of those who try in videos I’ve shot recently:

While none of these homes or developments are completely self-sufficient, incredibly- for an urban home-, no sewage has left Sydney’s Sustainable House in 12 years and they collect all their water and energy from rain and sun.Green points for sourcing local

My brother’s Melbourne remodel didn’t involve greywater recycling nor an on-site sewage treatment tank, but he did try to be consistent about making environmentally-friendly choices throughout his home and he opted out of bamboo since it would have traveled thousands of miles (most likely from China, India or Myanmar where 80% of bamboo is grown) for more locally-sourced and recycled choices.

For the North Carolinian developer, his bamboo would most likely would come from China- the source of most bamboo flooring sold in the US- and travel about 7,000 miles to reach him.

The LEED and NAHB standards do address locally-sourced materials in their guidelines: LEED requires a certain percentage (usually 10 or 20%) of materials to be regional- sourced within 500 miles of the construction site- and the NAHB gives 5 points for using “locally available indigenous materials”, but 5 points is nothing out of the 395 needed for gold, 311 for silver and 237 or bronze.

Bamboo: an environmental silver bullet?

There’s no question bamboo grows much faster than hardwood. While hardwood can take 120 years to grow to maturity, bamboo- classified as a grass- can be harvested in 3 to 7 years. It can grow as fast as one foot per day and there’s a record in Japan of growth of 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in just 24 hours.

Bamboo is naturally bug and drought resistant so requires few, or no, pesticides and little water, to grow, but ironically, as the demand for this sustainable crop has grown, its production has grown less sustainable. As farmers try to increase yields, it is often grown as a monocrop on plantations; this lack of biodiversity lowers the plants natural resistance to disease and bamboo farmers have begun to spray intensively with pesticides, weed killers and fertilizers.

Like other crops which have experienced a huge surge in demand due to a “green” trend, such as palm and soy, the success of bamboo has led to the clearcutting of natural forests.

In 2005, University of Minnesota professor Jim Bowyer published a report entitled “Bamboo flooring: Environmental silver bullet or faux savior?” in which he quoted scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the Chinese Academy of Forestry, and the University of Madrid:

  • “Recently, bamboo expansion has come at the expense of natural forests, shrubs, and low-yield mixed plantations . . . It is common practice to cut down existing trees and replace them with bamboo.”
  • “As forestlands tend to be in hilly and mountainous areas with steep slopes, clear- cutting has resulted in an increase in erosion until the bamboo becomes fully established …”
  • “The intensive use of chemicals (pesticides, weed killers and fertilizers) [associated with growing bamboo] also affects the environment . . .”

Naturally, Bowyer concludes that bamboo is “not an environmental silver bullet” and “may be, in reality, anything but green”. He also argues that “for programs such as LEED to maintain credibility… bamboo should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as wood”. Currently, there is no FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification for bamboo.

Even if the “wood”, or grass, were to be FSC-certified, the final product is often toxic due to the common use of formaldehyde- classified as a probable human carcinogen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- as an adhesive. In the US, when salon.com reported on bamboo as a wonder product back in 2004, there were just two companies, using formaldehyde-free glues: Bamboo Mountain and Teragren.

Cork: floors that protect wildlife from a wood that doesn’t kill trees

What if you could harvest a wood product for flooring without killing a single tree and at the same time protect biodiverse forests and endangered species? On nearly 30,000 square kilometers of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, there is such a place.

The cork oak forests of the Mediterranean “support one of the world’s highest levels of forest biodiversity, including endemic plants and endangered species such as the Iberian Lynx, the Iberian Imperial Eagle, and – symbol of the Maghreb – the Barbary Deer”, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

To harvest cork, every 9 to 12 years the bark is simply peeled away, the tree is preserved and the bark renews itself. These are mature forests- cork can’t even be harvested until a tree reaches 45 years of age and continues to be harvested for its lifetime of 150 to 200 years- so the resulting ecosystems are not only havens for endangered species, but for all animal life.

Just one square meter is home to an estimated 135 species including the endangered Bonelli’s eagle, virtually the entire European population of common cranes, along with wolves, wild boar, genets, geckos, skinks, mongoose and wild cats, leading the WWF to rank cork forests among the “top biodiversity hotspots of Europe and the Mediterranean”. 

Unlike bamboo, cork has been a declining market. Since cork wine
stoppers make up 70% of the market, their replacement by plastic and
metal tops by manufacturers attempting to avoid “cork taint” (something several cork producers claim to have cured)
have hurt sales this century, endangering these lush forests. When cork
forests are abandoned or converted the regions become at risk of fire
and desertification.

Cork for its acoustic properties… and because it gets better with age

Cork as a product, and the forests, may be on the upswing. In 2005, the world’s first cork oak forests and products became FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) in Portugal’s Alentejo region (912 hectares), Spain’s Andalucia (11,405ha) and Italy’s Northern Sardinian (66ha).

Given all the endangered species at stake, no one is pushing you to cover your floor in cork to save a forest, but to consider it as perhaps a wiser choice than hardwood under certain circumstances.

I recently saw some cork floor samples at the Green Home Center in San Francisco and they don’t all look like bulletin boards, but come in all textures and colors. As the store’s Zany Rumon explained to me in a video on green building supplies, cork turns out to have some special properties as a floor covering. “It’s anti-microbial and anti-bacterial by nature, naturally fire-retardant.

One of the things that make it particularly appealing to me with a 4-year-old around the house is that it has acoustic properties. You actually find some communities requiring cork in between floors of high-rise apartments because of its acoustic properties.”

When I stopped in at Seattle’s Environmental Home Center last July to shoot a video about their favorite products, the store’s CEO Tim Taylor couldn’t stop talking about the magic of cork.

“In terms of its functionality. People say to me, what about liquids? What about liquids? Let’s go back to what it’s traditionally used for: it keeps liquid in a bottle. In terms of comfort underfoot it’s extraordinarily resilient.”

“In terms of it’s durability, because it’s so resilient it tends to not show wear, it tends to not show dings, it tends to not show scratches more so than some significantly harder hardwoods. Even though these do wear and age from an aesthetic perspective these tend to look better and better as they get older instead of worse and worse like most hardwood floors.”

Floors from perhaps “the most sustainable source on the planet”

Cork isn’t just considered a sustainable product because the trees and forests of the raw material help protect native Mediterranean ecosystems, but the manufacture of the flooring is relatively toxin-free and efficient.

As Tim Taylor explained to me, wine stoppers use the most valuable part of the cork bark and cork flooring can be made from whatever shredded cork is leftover. These cork scraps are “bonded together with a non-toxic bonding agent- a PVA glue- and made into a glue down tile or a floating floor”.

At this point in the interview, Tim was on a roll and explained that if you put the cork forest story together with the manufacturing process, it’s hard not to like this product: “Most of the cork products are from a completely sustainable source, if not the most sustainable source on the planet today. And this is made from manufacturing waste. So in addition to the cork being completely sustainable, it’s made from manufacturing waste so it’s doubly beneficial.”

He continued that not only was this an incredibly sustainable product, but the company they work with- VidaCork- takes things one step further. “One of the best parts about working with this company is that they’ve developed their plant in a way that takes the only by-product they had which was the dust they had from cutting the cork and they’ve used that now in a biomass energy plant that converts that to heat and electricity. So basically it’s a completely closed loop system there’s nothing that comes out of the plant that’s in any form of waste.”

Besides the tiles and planks, VidaCork also offers cork wall coverings and textiles (bags, wallets, waste baskets, etc.).

Reclaimed wood: from China and American pallets

Cork may not be for everyone, but there are other ways to avoid the felling of trees for your new floor.

If you have to have hardwood, reclaimed wood is an option, but it’s not renewable and there isn’t an infinite supply. As Richard McFarland of Terra Mai explained to me at the 2006 West Coast Green Convention, when he first got into the business over a decade ago good wood was being thrown away by demo crews, but now it’s in such high demand, he often travels to Asia to recycle things like old railroad ties. So once again, transportation becomes an issue.

I decided to look into what sources of local reclaimed wood might be available to a developer in North Carolina and I found out that in his state more than 300,000 tons of wooden pallets end up in landfills every year. Phil Araman of the USDA Forest Service told Industrial Strength Woodworking Magazine that “38% (about 4.5 billion board feet) of the country’s hardwood lumber is used in pallet manufacturing, which makes it the largest use of such lumber”.

Much of this ends up in the landfill: pallets make up of 2% of total municipal solid waste.
Araman decided to do something about this and brought together a consortium of academia, government and private businesses to find a commercial use for discarded pallets.

Since hardwoods like oak, walnut and maple, are the primary pallet material, they decided to make flooring.
In July of 2006, the first pallet-to-hardwood floors went on sale through Joe Pryor of Oaks Unlimited in Waynesville, NC.

I contacted Joe by email and he said he’s still selling it and that he currently has 4000 feet in stock, but he warned me not to get anyone’s hopes up for a pallet floor for their personal home since he normally just sells in large quantities to local builders.

While at first I was disappointed it wasn’t more universally accessible, it was refreshing to hear that there are still some local businesses- he doesn’t take credit cards or send out samples- that are innovating to make their business more sustainable. And given that he doesn’t advertise this “reclaimed” option on his website, he doesn’t seem to be going for green cred either.

Wood floors to prevent forest fires

Not all new wood is inherently unsustainable, as long as you don’t mind small trees. Because of 50 years of fire fighting in the American West, the forests there are now overly dense and overstocked with small trees- suppressed wood- that would normally have been cleared by naturally-occurring fires.

According to the USDA Forest Service: “To restore the open, parklike setting that existed in presettlement times, these stands need thinning followed by prescribed fire. Such restoration is expensive, but if we can find economic uses for the thinning material, some of the costs can be offset.”

One of those economic uses is flooring, aka suppressed wood flooring, and Forest Service research seems to show that there may not be much of a difference between the quality of wood from small and large diameter trees.

A tree hugger who fells trees for a living

In Missoula, Montana where loggers used to burn or bulldoze the small-diameter larch trees, Peter Starck set up a business selling floors made from this “smallwood”. He fell into the trade after discovering that the forest on his 80 acre property was too dense and ready to burn.

After using some of the felled trees to floor the dance studio he was building for his wife, he discovered that size doesn’t matter. “The one thing I love about it is all the knots. They’re particularly dark and tight. It gives the flooring a beautiful pattern.”

Calling his product “Treadlight” isn’t a reflection of the strength of the flooring. Larch is one of the hardest of softwoods and harder than most pines.
Starck’s business, North Slope Sustainable Wood, uses a local mill that specializes in small-diameter timber.

As the mill’s manager Angello Ververis explained to the Missoulian newspaper, they are inspired by the European woodsmen who used every part of the tree: “the only thing we don’t utilize is the cones”.

Starck was awarded a $250,000 “woody biomass grant” from the U.S. Forest Service to help with marketing, but he sees his business as a solution to Montana’s ongoing battle between environmentalist and the timber industry. “If we can take the small trees and sell them for a high value and leave the older trees behind, we’re restoring the old-growth condition to the forest.”

In case there was any doubt, in an interview with the New York Times he made it clear which side he was on: “I’m a tree hugger“.

21st Century tree huggers

If being a tree hugger in 2008 involves chopping down small trees to protect the big ones, we’ve come a long way since 1973 when Chipko activists in India first “hugged” trees to prevent their felling.

Today, there seems to be more nuance to being a tree hugger because not all trees are created equally. We have to know when it’s better to chop trees than fast growing grass or when it’s possible to save entire forests by harvesting bark.

My tree-hugging husband hopes to someday chop down the trees on his family’s land in Northwestern Spain. There in Galicia a few decades ago, a fast-growing tree was planted to make fast money.

While it could be seen as a “rapidly renewable resource” (it can be grown and felled for paper nearly every decade), now even those farming them are recognizing that the Eucalyptus- more appropriate to their native Australia and Tasmania- are causing more forest fires and less biodiversity (my husband has noticed the frogs of his childhood have disappeared).

Like Portugal to the south, the trees more native to Galicia are pine and cork.
In Coruche, Portugal, António Gonçalves Ferreira farms the 30 square kilometers of cork forest that have been in his family for 5 generations. He has stuck with this traditional crop even during tough times because, he too, recognizes that not all trees offer the land, and its people, the same benefits.

His mantra remains that of the old cork grower’s proverb: “Eucalyptus trees are for us, pine trees for our children, and cork trees are for our grandchildren.”