How to Select Environmentally Friendly Flooring
While it's a no-brainer to want environmentally friendly or “green” products for our homes, figuring out just what we mean by “green” is a little more challenging. The more people you speak with, the more elastic the definition becomes. These are some popular criteria for eco-friendly flooring:
- It should be durable so that it does not need to be replaced frequently—short-lived products add to the waste stream.
- It should be produced locally, which limits the amount of fossil fuels needed to transport the product.
- It should contain recycled material and be able to be recycled.
- It should be made of renewable materials.
- It should not add toxins to the air inside our homes, which means it limits the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted into the air. VOCs are gasses emitted from certain solids and liquids. Depending on the individual, VOCs can cause adverse health effects.
In reality, very few products meet all of those requirements. Therefore, selecting an eco-friendly product involves tradeoffs. For example, bamboo flooring, which many people consider to be environmentally friendly, has to be imported, so it does not meet the locally produced requirement. But, its other good qualities outweigh its drawbacks.
Here's a look at some of the most popular flooring products.
One of the most popular flooring materials used in homes, wood is a sustainable resource. For every cubic foot of wood harvested in the U.S., 1.6 cubic feet of wood is planted. A solid wood floor can last as long as the house stands, and the material can be recycled.
The majority of domestically produced flooring comes from responsibly managed forests. The National Wood Flooring Association's Responsible Procurement Program certifies that products come from environmentally and socially responsible sources. The Forest Stewardship Council (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.
Wood flooring is available either as solid wood or engineered wood, which is similar to plywood in that it consists of thin layers of wood bonded together. The top layer is the finished layer. Engineered wood contains resins and adhesives, so look for low-emitting products, which outgas very low levels of VOCs.
Reclaimed wood is wood that has been recycled from another use, such as the dismantling of an old barn or other building. The FSC certifies wood that is recycled.
Bamboo is actually a grass, not a wood. Because it is a grass, it can regenerate itself in about six years. When bamboo is woven into strands and pressed together it becomes an extremely hard product suitable for floors. The flooring industry rates the hardness of wood species using the Janka rating system. The benchmark is red oak, with a rating of 1290. The higher the rating, the harder the wood. Bamboo's rating is 2789. Look for FSC certification when choosing bamboo flooring.
To many, this will seem an odd category to be listed here. Vinyl is a petroleum-based product that many purists will never consider for their homes. But some vinyl products tick off a number of environmentally-friendly boxes: It's durable, so there is no need to replace it as frequently as, say, carpeting; the initial cost and cost of maintenance is low when compared with other materials; some products contain a significant level of recycled content; and there is third-party testing that identifies products that do not outgas once installed.
Vinyl comes in sheet form and tiles. One of the most popular types of product is called luxury vinyl tile (LVT). These are products that are manufactured to look like natural stone or wood flooring. The look lookalikes even come in plank form like real wood. Unlike solid wood, LVT can be installed anywhere. Some are waterproof.
If you are considering vinyl flooring, look for the Resilient Floor Covering Institute's FloorScore certification. In this program, third-party testing ensures that the products meet stringent indoor air quality standards and that the products emit low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC).
The material used for cork flooring comes from the bark of the cork oak. The tree itself is not harmed and the bark grows back in a few years. The material is durable and naturally resists mold. Choose low VOC-emitting adhesives if you select a glue-down type, and low VOC stains and sealants for the finishing process.
Both ceramic and glass tiles are considered environmentally friendly. Although they require significant amounts of energy during the manufacturing process, they are extremely durable and do not outgas once installed. Look for locally-produced tiles that contain a high percentage of recycled material.
Many people use the term linoleum to mean any kind of tile that is not ceramic. But linoleum is its own product that has been around since the 1800s. It is an all-natural product made from linseed oil, tree resins and limestone pressed onto a jute backing. Linoleum has made a comeback in recent years because of its environmental characteristics and deep, rich colors. Look for products that use recycled materials and are certified by FloorScore.
Choose rugs and carpets made of all natural materials like wool or jute. Wool rugs are easy to keep clean and are extremely durable. The Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus programs certify carpets, adhesives and carpet padding for low emissions of VOCs.
When updating the flooring in your home, be sure to keep these eco-friendly options in mind. Choose the style that best suits your taste and budget, and rest assured you’ll be helping the environment along the way.
Fran Donegan is a home improvement author who provides home improvement tips and DIY how-tos for your home. He also gives advice on choosing eco-friendly products. To see some of the green vinyl flooring options that Fran mentions in this article, visit The Home Depot.
Companies: The Home Depot