Guide to Environmentally Friendly Wood Flooring
By Fran J. Donegan
Most wood flooring ticks off many of the boxes that determine whether a product is environmentally friendly. It comes from a renewable resource, and many products are harvested from sustainably managed forests and tree plantations. It does not contribute to indoor air pollution. It has an extremely long lifespan, and when it needs to be replaced it can be recycled. These are all characteristics that prevent the product from ending up in landfills.
Unfortunately, not all wood flooring meets the environmental criteria. Products that come from illegal foreign sources have been banned since 2008, but some products still get in. Consider it a red flag if a supplier cannot tell you where the wood came from.
Here are some additional guidelines for selecting environmentally friendly wood flooring.
This is what most people think of as wood flooring. It is a solid piece of lumber that is milled from a variety of wood species, such as oak, pine or maple. The wood is usually 5/8 to 3/4 inches thick and comes in a range of widths and lengths. The thickness means the wood can be sanded and refinished as needed, so a floor can last for decades before needing to be replaced.
Major manufacturers of wood flooring proudly tout the "green" aspects of their products. For verification of claims, look for the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) label. FSC is an international organization that monitors and certifies wood products. Its mandate includes everything from forest management to worker's rights. Look for the logo on flooring products, especially flooring imported from other countries. The National Wood Flooring Association sponsors another certification program. Its Responsible Procurement Program verifies that products come from environmentally and socially responsible sources.
Wood flooring is available finished or unfinished, which means it must be sanded and finished on site. With finished flooring, there is no worry about fumes from stains and sealants hanging around your home. But finished products are usually not available in the range of sizes and looks you can obtain when finishing on-site. Many flooring installers like to do the finishing so that they can get an even look throughout the house. If you do choose on-site finishing, use low-emitting products.
This product is constructed similar to plywood: Thin layers of wood are bonded together; the top layer is a familiar species of wood and provides the finished look. Unlike solid wood, engineered products will not stand up to repeated standing and refinishing, but they are more dimensionally stable than solid wood and less likely to gap or buckle as the temperature and humidity fluctuate. That means it can be installed in places not recommended for solid wood, such as basements.
The individual plies are held together by adhesives and binders. Look for products that are certified low emitting with low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC).
Sometimes called recycled wood, these are products from one source that are repurposed for another use, such as an old barn that is dismantled whose wood is turned into flooring. Some reclaimed lumber is from species that have disappeared from regular use, such as longleaf pine. Reclaimed wood can also provide distinctive looks that are not available in newly milled lumber.
Depending on the supplier, reclaimed wood is available both finished and unfinished. There is an FSC-Recycled label, which means the product came from reclaimed material.
Architects and designers like bamboo flooring because it's an environmentally friendly product that provides a number of different looks. One of the main reasons it is so sustainable is because it grows extremely fast. Bamboo can be harvested in 4 to 6 years from planting, compared with the 60-plus years it takes some hardwoods to reach harvest age.
Bamboo is not actually wood but a species of fast-growing grass. When processed and woven into strands, it can provide a floor that is 25 percent harder than oak. The one drawback is that most bamboo comes from Asia and so must be transported to the U.S., creating a large carbon footprint. But its other qualities, especially bamboo with an FSC label, make it an environmentally friendly choice.
As with bamboo, cork renews itself in a few years. The cork used in flooring is the bark of the cork tree. The tree is not harmed when the bark is removed. Cork absorbs sound, provides a comfortable walking surface and naturally resists mold. Look for products with low VOC-emitting adhesives, binders and finishes.
When it comes time for new flooring, there are a variety of environmentally friendly products that provide a wide range of design options.
DIY author Fran Donegan has written several books, including Paint Your Home, and currently writes for The Home Depot. He offers up pro advice from how to determine green hardwood flooring material options to changing your air filter for cleaner air in your home.
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Companies: The Home Depot