Image: Angus McRitchie
Check out your options when it comes to environmentally responsible flooring choices.
When it comes to renovating, it’s not easy being green. Given an increasing chorus of manufacturers’ eco-marketing claims (that may or may not withstand closer scrutiny), finding products that serve our needs as well as they do the earth’s, often requires a certain healthy skepticism — and sometimes, the willingness to pay a premium for our principles.
Moreover, in a home, the term “environmentally friendly” has two distinct layers of meaning. The first has to do with the health effects of having the stuff in your house, from the out-gassing of VOCs and other harmful chemicals to dust, allergens, spores and stray fibres. And the second, of course, is doing our part to save what’s left of our planet.
With a product like flooring, which takes up so much physical space in your house, its effect on both the inner and outer environments should be of concern, and some of the worst offenders are also the most popular: hardwood and carpeting. But there are plenty of alternatives that are friendly both to the environment and to you, without sacrificing design, comfort or too much extra green (money, that is).
Most of us know by now that the destruction of the rainforest reached emergency proportions some time ago. The rainforest continues to disappear at a rate of about 100 acres per minute, and if current practices remain unchecked, it will be gone forever in another generation or two. And it’s not only the jungles of Borneo or Costa Rica that are under threat: Over 95% of North America’s old-growth forest has already been lost, and Canada, arguably, lags behind the U.S. in conservation efforts.
But we still like nice hardwood floors. One solution is to demand, and only purchase, wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent industry consortium, to be sustainably grown, harvested and processed. FSC inspectors evaluate a timber firm’s commercial forests and verify that their natural biodiversity is being maintained, that the same number or fewer trees are being harvested than removed, and that the forest is naturally self-sustaining. The inspection process continues down the line through the cutting and processing stages — certifying that employees work under humane, fair-trade and safe conditions — and carries through as far as possible to the end user.
Bamboo has become the poster child for environmentally friendly flooring, but not all bamboo is created environmentally equal. This giant woody grass is very fast growing, requiring only five years from seedling to harvest, and it resprouts from the clump, so that cutting down the stalk does not kill the plant. However, cultivation and processing may create other problems, ranging from the quality of the resin used to bind the planks and the distance it has to travel to your supplier, to the possibility that other trees were displaced to plant bamboo groves.
In some ways, “environmentally friendly carpeting” is an oxymoron. Carpeting traps dirt, dust and other allergens (though whether this is bad or actually a health benefit is a matter of debate), and synthetic carpeting can outgas, with unknown effects both for you and the environment in general. On the other hand, natural fibres have their own issues — for example, conditions in the original sheep farms or wool fibre factories. However, the synthetic fibre industry has made strides both in producing the product more responsibly at the factory level, and reducing outgassing. Also, at least one Canadian company, Nylene Canada, takes back old carpet and recycles it.
Cork has a number of advantages from an environmental standpoint. Like bamboo, it’s renewable, but in a different way: cork bark is peeled from a living tree, which is not harmed and continues to grow. Since the bark is ground up and reconstituted to make everything from wine corks to shoe soles, there is little waste; while recycling facilities do not exist in Canada, cork is routinely recycled in Europe, so the technology may appear here someday.
Linoleum is the granddaddy of environmentally sustainable flooring. Invented in the late 1800s from a mixture of linseed oil, pine resins and sawdust, it’s biodegradable, organic and hygienic. And, far from the ugly rubbery-looking floors in our old school classrooms, it’s become fashionable again as a contemporary artistic statement and comes in a wide variety of stock and custom colours.