Standing in a newly carpeted room, it’s hard to miss the distinctive chemical odors wafting up from the floor. That’s the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—airborne chemicals that can exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause headaches, nausea and eye and throat irritation upon exposure.
While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that proper ventilation significantly reduces VOC exposure from new carpets after the first 48 to 72 hours, health concerns related to conventional carpets are legitimate, as are its other environmental consequences. According to the EPA, “Over 4 billion pounds of carpet enter the solid waste stream in the United States every year.”
Because it’s bulky and comprises multiple materials, discarded carpet is difficult both to dispose of and recycle.
Fortunately, there are a host of savvy alternatives that won’t tax the health of our families or the planet. Here are some of the most popular eco-flooring choices.
Hardwood: Woods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and available through most major retailers offer an attractive option for most homes. Domestically grown species, including oak, maple and hickory, are the better choices environmentally. However, the FSC also certifies tropical and other forests around the globe (at least 330 million acres in 81 countries), helping to prevent damaging deforestation and counteract illegal logging (fsc.org).
Brad Kahn, the council’s director of communications, notes that people purchasing FSC-certified products have assurance that the product is supporting responsible forest management and helping protect forests for future generations.
Reclaimed Hardwood: Lumber brimming with character, as well as sterling environmental credentials is available from companies specializing in reclaimed wood. It may come from sources as diverse as Midwest barns razed for development to ties from abandoned rail lines in Thailand. Nail holes, scratches, weathering and other distinctive markings lend the wood—and our homes—a special distinction. Reclaiming these valuable materials not only diverts them from the waste stream, it expands the eco-options available to homeowners via otherwise unavailable old-growth tropical hardwoods, including cherry and teak. If a local source isn’t available, look for an FSC-certified company (e.g., TerraMai.com; ElmwoodReclaimedTimber.com).
Bamboo: Bamboo has won many environmental accolades in recent years because it is a hardy plant that grows to full height quickly. Intended to reduce the need to fell trees, its use has prompted the spread of bamboo plantations across India, China and Burma; the unintended result has been rampant clearing of oldgrowth, biodiverse forests for a monoculture crop, frequently for bamboo products that are not FSC-certified.
Look for bamboo that is FSC-certified; when it’s not, advises Kahn, “Consumers have no way to know how the bamboo was grown or harvested.” What’s more, he adds, bamboo flooring is held together with adhesives and other chemicals, and these related issues must be considered by an eco-conscious homeowner.
Cork: Cork is durable, warm, sound absorbing and environmentally friendly. Lending unique properties to flooring, its cellular nature makes it a good shock absorber (a special plus for the infirm) and maintains its integrity over time. Note that spilled moisture needs to be dealt with immediately, as it could eventually ruin the flooring.
Derived from the bark of the Quercus suber, or cork oak, that grows in the Mediterranean region, the bark is harvested once every nine years by hand from carefully managed forests. Peeling off the bark does not hurt the trees. To be sure cork flooring is chemical-free, look for companies selling all-natural, undyed cork.
Wool Carpets: Wool has everything—softness, warmth, durability, variety and sustainability. Shorn from sheep, the primary fiber is as renewable as possible, but homeowners need to check the composition of the backing material, as well.
Nature’s Carpet (NaturesCarpet.com), one example of a green textile company, ranks their wool carpets on a grading system. The most environmentally friendly, or “dark green”, carpets feature jute (the same material used for burlap, comprising one of the softest natural carpets) natural fiber backings, held in place with natural rubber latex, says Brooke Davis, a spokesperson for Nature’s Carpet. “The result is an ultra-low toxicity floor covering,” she says. Davis confirms that most wool carpets will last 30 years or longer and at the end of their long natural life, will biodegrade.
Natural Carpets: In addition to jute, other plant-based carpets are ideal for hallways, entranceways and other hightraffic household areas. Sisal, made from agave plants, is the same material used as twine; sea grass offers a coarse, woven, beach-friendly appearance; and coir, culled from coconut husks, often shows up in natural-fiber doormats. All make ideal area rugs and can feature colorful and decorative borders to accent the natural look.
Brita Belli is the editor of E – The Environmental Magazine and author of The Autism Puzzle: Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Toxins and Rising Autism Rates. She blogs at AutismAndToxins.com.