Eco-Friendly Flooring

table and chairs on hardwood floor

EPA studies have shown that indoor pollutant levels can be two to five times higher than they are outside. To find the source of many of these pollutants, just glance down. Installation of new carpet and flooring can fill the air with hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including known and suspected carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene. It can take years for these substances to dissipate. In addition, carpets are often treated with toxic chemicals for moth-proofing or to repel soil and moisture. Carpeting is also notorious for trapping toxic lawn chemicals, VOCs, and allergens tracked in from outside.

There are several sustainable flooring options that can minimize indoor pollution and mitigate health problems caused by toxic carpets. You can now choose from a rapidly growing line of carpets and flooring made from recycled and eco-friendly materials. Durable, stylish, and often less expensive than conventional floors and carpets, these sustainable options provide a responsible and healthy way to enhance your home.

Rolling Out the Green Carpet

The environmental and health costs associated with carpeting extend from the time of your purchase until your carpet’s disposal. Here are some ways you can minimize those costs:

Fast and cheap fix: If you are experiencing health problems that could be caused by your carpet, there is a cheap solution. Try a nontoxic, green carpet finish like SafeChoice Carpet Seal, available from American Formulating & Manufacturing. This product forms an insoluble water- and odor-resistant barrier that prevents chemicals from offgassing from carpets for up to five cleanings or one year.

Carpet: There are a wide range of sustainable carpets and rugs sold at competitive prices across the nation. Look for carpets made from natural fibers with little or no chemical treatment. Also, purchase carpets with natural-fiber backing attached with less-toxic adhesives.

Padding: Many carpets and carpet paddings contain plastics made from petroleum, an unrenewable and energy consumptive resource. Choose a carpet with lightweight backing that requires no additional padding, or use padding made from recycled materials. Look for 100 percent recycled cotton padding or recycled “rag pads.”

Installation: Finding the right carpet is just the beginning of your journey toward eco-friendly floors. Next, you’ll need to have your carpet installed, a process that often involves chemical-based glues that have been linked to respiratory problems and other health issues. Tacking carpets down is a safe and easy alternative to gluing that eliminates many potentially hazardous pollutants. However, if you do decide to glue, you can take steps to minimize your ecological footprint. Look for water-based, low-VOC glues to install your carpets.

Disposal: Eventually, all the cleaning in the world won’t save an old and tattered carpet. But, when you finally decide to say goodbye to an older carpet, remember that every year people send 1.8 million tons of rugs and carpets to local landfills, and that most carpets will last up to 20,000 years. Instead of adding to that total, try to purchase flooring from companies that will recycle or donate your old carpet.

Few carpet recyclers exist who will take any and all old carpets off your hands. Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) is a nonprofit created to oversee the recovery, recycling, and reuse of post-consumer carpet. CARE’S database helps you locate carpet donation and recycling partners in your area.

Another way to minimize your ecological impact is to install carpet in tiles, if possible. This method allows you to replace smaller parts of it when they become worn down or damaged, rather than replacing the entire thing.

Finally, a professional carpet repairer can give your old carpets new life by mending, reweaving, refringing, and dying your old carpets. To find a carpet repair expert, consult your local yellow pages under “Carpet & Rug Repairing.”

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Ranking Your Rugs

Rugs are a great way of adding style and comfort to any of your home’s floors, but they, too, can carry a steep environmental cost. Like conventional carpets, rugs frequently contain nylon and other petroleum by-products. To minimize the use of these resource-intensive ingredients, look for rugs made of natural fibers. For a list of companies that sell eco-friendly rugs or other flooring options, consult the GreenPages.org

Many hand-woven rugs are made overseas, where labor restrictions regarding workers’ rights and child labor are much looser than they are in the US. This second problem can be solved in one word—Goodweave. GoodWeave (formerly Rugmark) is a nonprofit founded in 1994 to end child slavery in the handwoven carpet industry. GoodWeave conducts independent audits of carpet weaving factories to ensure no child labor laws are violated. To date over 11 million GoodWeave-certified rugs have been sold. More than 3,600 children have been rescued from carpet looms and the certification has deterred the employment of thousands more.

Other Options

While carpet and rugs can be responsibly purchased and installed, the most eco-friendly flooring option is often avoiding them altogether. Here are some of the best alternatives:

  • Hardwood Floors: For home-owners sold on traditional hardwood floors, the Forest Stewardship Council can make sure that your lumber comes from sustainably managed forests. Dozens of types of wood are produced in FSC-certified forests in which the trees are regenerated, biodiversity is conserved, and air and water quality are preserved. FSC-certified wood flooring comes in hundreds of different shades and styles. To find other sources for FSC-certified wood, visit the FSC Web site and database, or for certified green businesses that sell flooring, search GreenPages.org.
  • Cork: While softwoods are rarely considered ideal flooring material, cork is an excellent choice for many reasons. The natural elasticity of cork makes these floors especially comfortable; the wood provides thermal and acoustic insulation; and the durable floors recover well from marks left by furniture or high heels. The floors are also hypo-allergenic, so they won’t attract dust; are fire-resistant; and can even serve as a natural insect repellant. Better yet, the floors are produced using the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows back every three years.
  • Bamboo: Bamboo, a popular green flooring option, is 13 percent harder than maple and 27 percent harder than northern red oak, so it lasts longer and can withstand more use than conventional hardwood floors. The floors are naturally resistant to water, mildew, and insects, and they are sustainable since bamboo grows quickly and abundantly. 
  • Tile and Linoleum: You can add life to any room with a colorful floor made of recycled glass tiles, which are ideal for modern bathrooms and kitchens. Natural linoleum floors are also hypo-allergenic and biodegradable.

It’s easy and cost-competitive to choose eco-friendly floors when your old floors need upgrading. All you have to lose are some pollutants.