You are building or upgrading your home and trying to be as green as you can. But, it’s a tough battle. Making ecologically sound choices requires a high wire act, balancing a variety of competing attributes. The list of considerations is broad.
What is the best way to lower future energy costs and minimize carbon emissions? How can you build durably, keeping waste to a minimum and materials out of the landfill? How do you maintain a healthy indoor environment? And how can all this be done while sticking to your budget?
What Makes a Product Sustainable?
The flooring you choose can play a big role in the long-term ecological footprint of your home-building or renovation project. First off, flooring covers a lot of ground—literally every square foot. That means its impacts reverberate throughout your house and most likely for decades to come.
So, getting it right the first time is critical. As a starting point, it is essential to understand what characteristics make a material or product sustainable.
1) Natural Resource Use
The materials used in the creation of any product originate from a resource base. How those resources are managed or conserved plays a substantial role in how sustainable they might be considered.
For instance, mining and depleting a resource while contaminating the surrounding landscape would clearly be less sustainable than would trees harvested from a carefully managed wood lot that is then replanted.
2) Production & Transportation Impacts
The ecological impact of manufacturing the product (the less the material must be modified the better) and bringing it to your location is another key indicator.
Does the product’s creation pollute the air or water? Is an undue amount of energy used in the process? Is the product shipped to you from China, or from the town next door to you?
3) Air Quality and User Health
Products that off-gas or have the potential to trap allergens or encourage molds can prompt everything from minor irritation to serious illness, depending on the severity and the susceptibility of the users.
4) Durability and Waste Disposal
The longer a product lasts, the longer the earth is relieved from having to birth a replacement. A corollary concern is: What happens to the product when it does reach the end of its life?
Will it degrade and decompose quickly and harmlessly in the landfill, or will it last for millennia and leach hazardous material? Or perhaps it is recyclable, which keeps it out of the landfill altogether.
How Green Are Flooring Materials?
Flooring options generally fall into four broad categories: carpets, vinyl and linoleum, stone and ceramic, and wood products. Let’s look at each and see how green they are in relation to the attributes listed above.
Sixty to seventy percent of homes in the United States have some form of carpeting, usually made from a synthetic material such as nylon or polyester, both of which are derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. The synthetic fibers are then backed by other petroleum based products, including latex, PVC, or polyurethane.
Many carpets are additionally treated with chemicals to repel stains and retard fire or mildew. All together, it’s an unhealthy, or even toxic, stew that tends to off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Additionally, carpets are prone to collect and hold pollen, dust, dust mites, and pet dander, causing allergic reaction.
Carpet has a relatively short lifespan, can’t be recycled, and lasts virtually forever in the landfill.
There are some carpet alternatives, including 100 percent wool carpet and renewable fiber carpets made from corn fibers, which mitigate some of the negatives, but on the whole, carpet is low on the list of eco-friendly options.
Vinyl and Linoleum
Most often associated with institutional flooring such as schools and hospitals as well as 1970s kitchens, vinyl and linoleum are often confused as the same materials when in fact they are on opposite sides of the coin.
Vinyl flooring is petroleum-based PVC, often containing chlorine-based fire retardants and plasticizers such as phthalates to provide flexibility. This chemical blend has deleterious effects on the environment during its production and ultimate burial in the landfill, as well as to indoor air quality during its lifespan. Additionally, it is produced in many countries around the world, so your order may be shipped domestically, but could also be arriving from Asia or Europe.
Linoleum, on the other hand, is made from renewable materials, including solidified linseed oil, pine rosin, cork dust, and wood flour, with a jute or canvas backing. Most linoleum products are non-allergenic. It is energy intensive in its manufacture and transport, but has a 30- to 40-year lifespan, and is generally 100 percent biodegradable.
Stone and Ceramic
Tile and stone have been used for millennia as a flooring material. They are generally seen as relatively eco-friendly due to their natural, earth-based origins, low or no emissions and low potential for harboring allergens while in your home, and a long lifespan.
Negatives include its extreme weight, which requires dramatic energy use for transportation (so a product quarried more locally should take precedence over a product shipped internationally). The quarrying/extraction process itself does have some environmental impacts and energy expenditure, but it is generally small scale compared to other mining operations, such as ores or coal.
Ceramic or porcelain tile is produced from natural clays, but the production process is also fairly energy intensive. Mortars, grouts, and sealants can vary in the quantity of VOCs or emissions they produce and should be selected wisely. Stone and tiles are not a renewable resource, though they are plentiful.
For the sake of discussion, we’ll break wood flooring products into three categories: solid hardwood and engineered lumber, laminates, and quasi-woods cork and bamboo. All of these sub-genres emanate from a renewable resource, and when managed carefully (FSC-certification is a must), the rate of harvest is always less than the average growth rate.
Solid Hardwood and Engineered Lumber
Solid hardwood and engineered lumber come from mature forests or plantations. Engineered lumber consists of thin veneers of hardwoods or softwoods stacked and glued to one another, while solid hardwoods are unadulterated planks milled directly from logs.
These are both eco-friendly products due to their locality (assuming the species chosen is grown locally or regionally), 50- to 100+-year lifespan, re-usability or recyclability, and non-toxicity (though be sure the producers utilize only formaldehyde-free glues in engineered lumber, and non-toxic coatings and sealants on either type).
Laminate flooring is made by compressing layers of fiberboard together and placing a photographic image on top covered by a protective coating. Laminates are considered by many to be eco-friendly due to the fact that the fiberboard is most often created either from wood waste products that would otherwise wind up in the landfill, or from recycled materials. The boards themselves can then be recycled at the end of their lives.
But the production process is extremely energy intensive, and many brands are made in Europe, requiring trans-Atlantic shipping. Some laminates may contain formaldehyde, and may require adhesives during installation, though many brands now use an adhesive-free click-lock system that avoids glues.
Bamboo and Cork
Bamboo and cork are relative newcomers to the flooring scene, and both tout themselves as the ultimate green flooring options, which is true in some ways, but not in others.
Cork is made from stripping the bark of living cork oak trees, which then replenishes itself within 8–10 years. Bamboo, a fast growing, woody tropical grass takes renewability to an even higher level, maturing in just 3–5 years. Bamboo is very durable, more so than cork, and both are hypo-allergenic and bio-degradable.
Cork is manufactured in a relatively benign way, utilizing resins to bond the compressed material together, while bamboo is laminated together using pressure, heat, and in some instances, a urea-formaldehyde adhesive. Both manufacturing processes are energy intensive, as is the transport of the products from their native habitats – bamboo from Asia, and cork from Southern Europe and North Africa.
Green = Minimalism
In sum, the most eco-friendly options available may differ depending on one’s location and details specific to one brand’s methods versus another brand, but a general rule of thumb points to the products that are the most minimal – minimally extractive, minimally depleting, minimally processed, minimally transported, minimally harmful, and minimally in need of replacement.