There are two main reasons to choose eco-friendly flooring when looking for materials to renovate old surfaces or create new structures. The first reason is your family’s health. Many of today’s flooring options off-gas harmful chemicals and negatively affect your home’s indoor air quality.
The second reason to choose eco-friendly flooring for your home is to reduce the impact on the environment. Most carpet and vinyl production is energy-intensive and uses up our petroleum reserves. The dyes, adhesives, sealants, etc. used in flooring manufacturing and installation also contribute harsh chemicals to the environment.
What Makes Flooring Eco-Friendly?
Choosing eco-friendly materials for your flooring eliminates both the impact to your health, and the impact to the environment. Ideally, eco-friendly flooring:
- is made with nontoxic materials (that don’t pollute your home’s indoor environment)
- uses a nontoxic manufacturing process (that doesn’t release chemicals into the environment)
- is made with renewable raw materials (or a widely available resource, like stone)
- is locally sourced (to avoid energy-intensive shipping)
- minimizes energy use during the harvesting and manufacturing process
Types of Eco-Friendly Flooring
Carpet: If you must have carpet, look for products labeled as “green” from CRI (Carpet and Rug Institute). A good choice is a natural fiber such as wool, but make sure it is not treated with chemical finishes. Do not put traditional carpet padding under the carpet, as most carpet padding is made with petroleum-based products. Look for carpeting that has a lightweight backing made with recycled materials. You can also choose recycled cotton padding, or recycled rag pads. Rugs are a better choice than wall-to-wall carpeting, because they can be removed for cleaning, and are more easily dried if they get wet.
Tile and Sheet Flooring: Instead of vinyl, choose true linoleum. Linoleum is made from natural products, such as wood flour and linseed oil. It does not emit the VOCs that vinyl flooring does, but be sure to use a nontoxic adhesive when installing. Better yet, go with natural stone, or glass tile. Both stone and glass tiles are beautiful, durable, and glass is even better because it can be made with recycled bottles and other glass products. Stone tiles such as slate, limestone or sandstone create beautiful textures and colors for your floors and are particularly useful in high-traffic, high-moisture areas such as kitchens and bathrooms.
Cork and Bamboo:Both bamboo and cork come from fast-growing renewable resources. They also have the extra advantage of being resistant to mildew and mold. Bamboo is even water resistant, making a good floor choice for kitchens and bathrooms. However, be sure to ask what goes into the finishes and adhesives of the bamboo or cork you choose, as sometimes those can turn a healthy floor into an unhealthy floor.
Bamboo is actually a grass that grows wild and fast. It requires no fertilizers and grows without the use of harmful pesticides. One problem with bamboo is that the process used to pulp and press it into a product that resembles wood is often toxic, and pollutes the environment. Pressures on the bamboo industry have started a trend toward cleaner manufacturing, and there are certifications available now to ensure the product you choose is truly eco-friendly. Another issue is that bamboo is mainly grown in the Far East, which requires energy-intensive shipping to other parts of the world.
Cork comes from the renewable bark of the cork tree, grown in southern Europe and northern Africa. Cork floors are very energy efficient and hold heat well. It’s nicer getting up in the morning, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and not having to walk on a cold floor. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Building for Energy and Environmental Sustainability, cork has a long and durable lifespan. It can last up to 50 years and carries the least environmental impact of any floor product. However, cork comes from a limited number of trees and the bark can only be harvested every 7-10 years, so there is a point where demand could outstrip supply. Cork also requires long shipping distances to reach North America.
Hardwood Flooring: It’s hard to deny the beauty and durability of heavy, hardwoods such as oak. These types of wood take a long time to grow, however. Deforestation damages the environment, and it can take hundreds of years to recover. If you are choosing hardwoods, look for certification from forest certification programs to ensure the materials aren’t being over harvested, and woodlands are not being destroyed just to create a product. Reclaimed or recycled hardwood is another good option. Be cautious when selecting a pre-finished or “engineered” hardwood, to be sure the adhesives and finishes are nontoxic.