Stop, right now, take a look at what’s under your feet. What is there? Is it soft blades of grass, supple wool rugs, wood, linoleum or tile? In the past, there were only a few choices, hardwood, vinyl, tile, or carpet. Now, more attention is being paid to sustainability and the impact that flooring has on the environment. Let us take a look at new options that are now afoot.
Linoleum and other materials made from Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) have been the inexpensive leader since they were first introduced to the market in the 1940s. Nearly 14 billion pounds of these products are produced every year in North America (US Green Building Council, 2009). From a sustainability standpoint, PVC based products are an environmental nightmare. It presents a problem throughout every stage of its product lifecycle, from production to installation to disposal. Some studies also link the plasticizers found in PVC to childhood asthma (US Green Building Council, 2009). Vinyl is a non-renewable petroleum product. The manufacturing process of vinyl produces vinyl chloride, dioxins, and ethylene dichloride, all of which are poisonous gases that are released into the air.
The problem with sheet vinyl does not stop with the manufacture. It can give off poisonous gases for many years after installation. PVC does not decompose in landfills, but must be disposed of by burning at very high temperatures to avoid releasing high amounts of dioxins into the air. Many people do not think about the environmental nightmare that vinyl creates. This brings us to the question of what other options are available that are better for our planet and our children’s health.
The first new option on the market is really an old one. Reclaimed wood flooring products add beauty and a character all their own. This is simply recycling wood products from various sources, such as buildings that are being torn down and other wood that would normally end up in the scrap pile destined to become part of landfill mountain. Many of these reclaimed wood products are less expensive than new wood products.
Old wood has character that new wood just cannot match. It often shows age, discoloration, and signs that is has a “history”. This can add old world charm to a new house. This also means that new trees do not have to be felled to produce new wood products. I have old floors in a house that was built in 1830. Everyone comments about the beauty and character of these old floors. Reclaimed wood is an excellent way to recycle and gain flooring that will add a character all of its own to any room. Check around in your area for places that offer reclaimed wood.
Bamboo is a flooring choice that has recently become popular. Bamboo is a fast growing forest plant that is found in China. Bamboo has an extensive root system and readily sends up new shoots every year for many decades. It can be harvested every 5-7 years for furniture and flooring grade material without replanting. This is much more sustainable than the deciduous hardwood forest that can take up to 60 years or more to grow one tree, which then must be replanted in order to avoid wiping out the forest. Managing a forest that takes 5-7 years to replenish is much easier than one that takes 60 years. Bamboo is beautiful and durable, making it an excellent flooring choice.
Cork is another flooring that has become popular for its renewability. However, its cycle is not as rapid as that of bamboo. Cork is a Mediterranean tree from which the bark (cork) is harvested. This can be done every 7-10 years without harming the tree. All natural cork products are preferred over cork composites. Some cork has a PVC backing. In the past, formaldehyde was used to bind the cork pieces together, but now this has been replaced by low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) binders. The installation process uses glues and adhesives, so one must be careful to use low VOC adhesives in the installation process. Some persons might be allergic or sensitive to these adhesives. If one takes care to mind these details, cork can be a wonderful natural flooring option.
Strandwoven materials such as mulberry and palm are beautiful and durable flooring choices. Strandwoven mulberry is manufactured from the reclaimed branches of mulberry bushes that were used in silk production, making it an after-market waste product. This composite material is pressed into a very hard slab, much like plywood, only it is much more beautiful. Strandwoven palm wood turns waste from agricultural production into a wonderful product that can meet many flooring needs. This product is made from the coconut palm. Millions of acres of coconut plantations exist around the world. The trees on these plantations stop producing fruit when they are 60-70 years old. When their productive life is over, they are reclaimed and turned into a beautiful flooring product.
Stone is an age-old option that has recently come back into fashion. Stone is non-renewable, but its durability tends to outweigh this problem. Stone often must be transported long distances, unless one happens to have a wonderful source of limestone, granite, or sandstone nearby. Installation can last for many decades, even centuries, so the problems associated with its initial purchase cost and installation negate themselves over time. It can be crushed and reused for aggregate when it outlives its useful lifecycle as a solid flooring material. This is certainly one option to check out for durability and the ability to last a lifetime.
Several old flooring options are coming back into fashion. These include ceramic and glass tile, which have been used for thousands of years. Linoleum, a flooring material similar to Vinyl laminate is also gaining in popularity again. Linoleum has been around since the mid-1800s (US Green Building Council, 2009). It is made from natural products, such as linseed oil (from flax plants), pine rosin, wood flour, cork flour, limestone and pigments. These are pressed together into a jute backing. One must make certain to ask for “natural” linoleum, as some vinyl is now referred to as linoleum, but it is not the same thing.
If you are thinking of replacing your old flooring soon, be sure to check out the new green options that are available in your area. Many traditional suppliers are now beginning to stock these new options. You will be pleasantly surprised at the performance and durability of these new flooring materials.
US Green Building Council (2009). Navigating the Flooring Thicket: Find the Greenest Way To Meet Your Needs. September 3, 2009. Retrieved from http://greenhomeguide.com/know-how/article/navigating-the-flooring-thicket-find-the-greenest-way-to-meet-your-needs