A Guide to Green Flooring
Floors are a major component of many renovation projects: the right carpet, tile, or wood can brighten up a room and make it feel like home. But how do you decide on the safest choice for you and your family? To help make your next home renovation project a little easier, we’ve put together this guide to eco-friendly flooring.
The problem: Carpets are a great way to keep your home feeling cozy and comfy, especially during the winter, but that extra warmth comes with a host of hidden dangers. Most important among these is the release of dangerous gasses known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The sealants used to install carpeting emit these toxic fumes, and many carpets are treated with stain protectants, fungicides, dyes, or other chemicals that will continue to release VOCs for years. Carpets can also be a real problems for people with allergies: pet dander, mold spores, and pollen get trapped in carpet fibers and then released every time you walk across them.
What to do instead: Despite its problems, there are lots of options available for keeping your carpet around. You can use a sealer on the carpet you already have to prevent it from releasing chemicals, or, if you’re installing new floors, look for carpets made from a natural fiber like wool that are free of stain proofing, harsh dyes, and other chemical additives. Also make sure that your installer is tacking the carpet down instead of using glue and that your home is well-ventilated for the installation. And no matter what kind of carpet you chose, keep it clean with a green carpet shampoo and regular steam cleaning to help control allergens.
The problem: Hardwood floors are a beautiful option for any room, but you’ll want to be careful about the environmental impact of all that oak, pine, or cherry. A lot of cheaper flooring will come from forests that have been clear-cut or farms that rely on environmentally damaging agriculture practices, and many of the chemicals required to install and maintain hardwood floors are a source of VOCs. For example, engineered wood floor boards are a composite of several layers of wood held together by an adhesive that may contain formaldehyde, and petroleum-derived waxes are frequently used to seal wood floors.
What to do instead: You can make sure your hardwood floors are eco-friendly by looking for a seal from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit that certifies all types of wood products. FSC products will come from sustainably managed forests that meet requirements for environmental, cultural, and economic responsibility; these floors will also be free of formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. Wood flooring can also be reused, and reclaimed boards from old buildings make perfect eco-friendly flooring. Whatever option works best for you, when you’re having floors installed make sure to ask that they be laid down without dangerous adhesives and that they’re sealed with natural oils.
The problem: Laminate is a cheap, popular option for flooring, but like carpet is a dangerous source of indoor VOC exposure. It’s made from pressed wood, which is manufactured using formaldehyde, a VOC and known carcinogen, and it cannot be recycled or reused.
What to do instead: All-natural cork flooring is an attractive, easy, and safe alternative to laminate. Harvested from the outer layer of tree bark, cork is a softer and warmer than synthetic flooring options and can be produced with minimal environmental impact. Just make sure you’re not purchasing a cork-vinyl composite and that the tiles are laid using an eco-friendly adhesive.
The problem: Vinyl, like all plastics, is made from environmentally damaging petrochemicals, which makes it a big no-no for those looking for eco-friendly flooring. Like laminate it cannot be effectively recycled or reused, and it has the added disadvantage of releasing toxic dioxins and phthalates into the environment when not disposed of properly.
What to do instead: If you’re looking for a green, easy way to do up your floors, consider using linoleum, which is made from natural materials like linseed oil, pine rosin, cork, and wood flour. It’s actually been around since the late 1800s, but has largely been replaced by plastic options (in fact, many vinyl flooring products are still referred to as linoleum, so make sure what you’re buying isn’t a plastic imitation). Because it’s waterproof, linoleum is great for kitchen and bathrooms, and it can also be recycled or composted at the end of its life.