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If you need to replace your carpets or floors, choose materials that are safe for your health and the planet.
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 mothproofing 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 outgassing 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.
Contempo Floor Coverings sells a variety of low-toxicity natural carpets made from woven wool and natural sisals, jutes, and seagrass. Natural Homeoffers a line of 100 percent wool carpets made with undyed or vegetable-dyed yarn and minimal natural latex (rubber) glue. Some boast no mothproofing or stain repellent chemicals. And Liberty Carpet One recently started a division called GreenFloors.com, which features carpets with high recycled (synthetic) content and less-toxic backings and adhesives. Their Web site will eventually help consumers recycle or donate old carpets.
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. Eco Products sells 100 percent recycled cotton padding, and many mainstream companies offer 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. American Formulating & Manufacturing, the Environmental Home Center, and Natural Home Products offer such adhesives at prices competitive with conventional glues.
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 carpet 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 CarpetRecovery.org 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.
FLOR makes low-VOC modular carpet squares with varying degrees of recycled content—mostly nylon and wool. Using the company’s 50 cm x 50 cm square carpet tiles, you can assemble custom rugs, runners, or wall-to-wall designs of any shape or size. If you spill or tear one tile, you simply replace the individual square, rather than an entire roomful of carpet, thereby saving resources.
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.”
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 National Green Pages™.
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.
While carpets 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:
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.
Republished April 2015
Originally featured in issue OCT/NOV 2002