We hear a lot of buzz about sustainability and eco-friendly products, but what does it really mean? To take an in-depth look at “green”, there are a lot of factors to consider, from impact on the global environment to the potential effect on you and your family. We also have to delve further than the immediate answers, into the future impact of harvesting and utilizing resources.
The idea of an eco-friendly flooring product, or really any product in any industry, must be thought of as being on a spectrum when it comes to how green it is. Put another way, there are some aspects of green to be found in a wide range of flooring products, with some types of flooring being associated with more of those aspects than others. It often depends on the circumstances, or even the location of where the flooring is being installed.
Why Eco-Friendly Flooring?
Wood of any kind is a sustainable resource, due to durability and the ability to replace what was used. In fact, using a one-to-one comparison, a good quality hardwood floor can easily last for a hundred years or more, the time it takes to re-establish the same old-growth resource ready for harvest. The problem lies not in using wood for flooring, but in irresponsible management of forests, or the triumph of greed over common good. Poor environmental planning in the past has led us to the brink of crisis. Ecosystems depend on trees, and deforestation threatens some of the most delicate and vital ecosystems on the earth, like the rainforests that produce an estimated 40% of the oxygen we breathe and provide homes for thousands of species.
Today, legitimate logging operations have embraced the environmental issues. They are using responsible practices to maintain healthy forested areas with diverse growth capable of sustaining the ecosystem, but illegal deforestation is still commonly practiced in many countries. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that 50% of imported U.S. hardwood originates from illegal – and environmentally devastating – logging practices. This wood is cut in one country, often the tropics, Africa, Russia, or Southeast Asia and exported to another, often China, to be processed before import to the U.S.
The phrase “carbon footprint” in general refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that’s released into the air during harvesting, processing, transport, and utilization of a resource. To measure the total carbon footprint of wood flooring, you have to follow the process from the cutting of the tree to the installation on your floor, and potentially beyond, if formaldehyde is used in the processing. Even some of the most environmentally sound and sustainable types of flooring can generate a significant carbon footprint due to transportation issues, since much of the flooring in use in the United States is shipped from China.
Global Warming Gases
The most significant thing to consider from both a global and a personal perspective are the emission of greenhouse gases. Some floor products contain chemicals that are dangerous to the environment and potentially dangerous to your family. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemical compounds commonly found in flooring materials, adhesives and finishes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that the air inside homes typically contains up to 5 times more VOCs than the air outside.
Some VOCs are suspected or confirmed carcinogens and have been proven to cause allergic reactions or respiratory complications. Symptoms of exposure include irritation of eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, allergic skin reaction, fatigue, dizziness, and loss of coordination. Serious reactions can include damage to the liver, kidneys, and the central nervous system.
If you’re having a new floor installed, ask about the products and request those with the least VOCs, then make sure your house is well ventilated during and for a few days after the installation, just to be sure. Children are most vulnerable, so if your child complains of headaches or shows any other kind of reaction, consider staying elsewhere until the installation is complete and the house is aired out.
Making Green Choices
Sustainability is an important factor in eco-friendly flooring. Choices such as bamboo and cork are beautiful, durable, and easily replenished.
Bamboo is a fast growing member of the grass family that replenishes itself from the roots and is ready to harvest in just five to seven years. It produces beautiful eco-friendly flooring with the natural look and durability of hardwood, versatility of installation, and a rich variety of grains and color choices to suit any design aesthetic. Bamboo grows almost anywhere and is unrivalled in oxygen production, producing almost 30% more oxygen than a comparable hardwood forest area. And as also mentioned, the production process minimizes waste by taking post-industrial materials, those being the parings of the bamboo cut to make boards, and making them into yet another type of super-durable bamboo floors – strand-woven bamboo flooring.
Cork is harvested from the bark of cork oaks, and harvesting does not harm the tree – in fact, replacement of the removed bark begins immediately and continues for nine years until it’s ready to be harvested again. Cork is harvested without the use of polluting machinery, and most cork flooring is already recycled from used wine corks. For a truly eco-friendly flooring choice, look for cork flooring manufactured without VOC-producing chemicals.
Reclaimed wood is also a viable green option. Old buildings or homes that are being torn down often have gorgeous hardwood floors or siding that can be rescued and restored for new and environmentally responsible use. A little elbow grease and polish is often all it takes to refinish an old wood floor to its original glory.
Laminate flooring can also be a greener option. Rather than harvesting slow growing or rain forest species, laminate flooring is created with a photograph of these species and produced with a core of wood generally harvested from managed forests. To ensure an even greener profile for your laminate floor check that the core material is harvested from forests managed according to FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Standards. The manufacturer or retail salesperson should be able to provide information on whether your wood flooring product is FSC compliant.
Another sound eco-friendly choice is porcelain tile. Manufactured of recycled materials, porcelain tiles can be made using a combination of glass, stone, and even plastic. Tile manufacturers grind their own industrial waste and waste from other local manufacturers to refine the powder used to cast the porcelain. Choose VOC-free adhesives to ensure your family better, more breathable air.
Your Impact on the Environment
The good news is that consumers have the ability to impact the market and positively influence the environment by simply choosing eco-friendly flooring and other products made from sustainable and environmentally friendly materials. Consumers drive the market, and you can use your dollars responsibly to cast a vote for a better environment for your family and for the earth.