Choosing a floor that’s healthier for you and the environment

Choosing a floor that’s healthier for you and the environment

By Michelle Garrison on 03/16/2006

A floor completely changes the style and feel of an interior space. Floors can be colorful and vivid, sleek and modern or full of rustic character. Some of the most popular and unique flooring is made with natural materials that are either recycled, rapidly renewable or sustainably harvested. Whatever your style, you can find an appropriate sustainable flooring option.

Choosing sustainable materials can help prevent waste, reduce pollution, preserve forests and ecosystems, and reduce toxic chemicals in your home. Synthetic carpets can produce about five billion pounds of landfill waste in just a year. Carpets also are some of the worst environmental offenders in the home because they contain petrochemicals and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that contaminate indoor air. For you, your home and the environment, it is worth a little extra expense to purchase a healthier flooring material.

You should consider these points before choosing flooring: Will it be a high-traffic area? Is there a lot of moisture? What is your subfloor material? Do you have pets? What type of look do you want? If you are not familiar with a specific flooring material, consult a professional before buying.

Flooring materials to consider

This rapidly-renewable material is gaining popularity because it has a natural, modern look with a subtle grain and smoothness that resembles a light wood. It generally comes in two colors, a lighter, natural color and an amber color (achieved by pressure-steaming, which darkens through carbonization). The only drawback is that recent demand for bamboo flooring has flooded the market with manufacturers who are producing poor-quality products that may split, gape or crack. Be sure to buy quality bamboo flooring with low-VOC adhesives; it is well worth the cost and is still more affordable than most hardwoods.

This is not the resilient flooring made from polyvinyl chloride. “Linoleum” comes from the Latin linum, or flax, and oleum, which means oil. Linoleum is a natural flooring made by oxidizing linseed oil to form a thick mixture that is cooled and mixed with pine rosin and wood flour to form sheets on jute backing. Linoleum is durable, rapidly renewable and biodegradable. It comes in many colors you can mix and match to create a life-size checkerboard, if you wish.

This product is rapidly renewable and post-industrial. The bark of the cork oak tree is harvested every nine to 11 years, which allows the tree to live its full life expectancy. After harvesting, the cork is drilled for bottle stoppers, and the scraps are used for flooring. How is that for sustainable? The cork harvest is a 1,000-year-old tradition in Portugal that is struggling because the wine industry is beginning to use plastic instead of cork. This is a great cause to support, and the flooring is beautiful, antimicrobial, acoustically insulative and easy on the back and joints.

If you’re still crazy about carpet, there are some alternative options. Wool carpet is renewable, durable, biodegradable and nontoxic. It’s also soft, easy to clean, has insulating properties, and is non-allergenic, odor-resistant and fire-resistant. A couple of manufacturers also make carpet from recycled bottles, and it’s much less polluting than typical synthetic carpets.

Sustainably-harvested wood 
Sustainable wood can be a touchy subject. Steps have been made to reduce our dependence on forests, but we will always have a need for wood, whether for building materials or the air we breathe. So, as consumers, it’s important we support sustainable forestry. We should buy wood that is certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and support our local sustainably-harvested forestry operations. This is an important step toward regulations that will ensure our forests will remain for future generations. For more information about FSC, visit

Recycled wood 
Not much beats the quality and durability of recycled wood, restored from old buildings and bridges and milled into flooring. The character of recycled wood tells an amazing story through its knots and incredible longevity. It is quite an experience living with part of an old tree in your home. Restoring wood can be labor-intensive, which sometimes makes it more costly, but the feel of literally walking on history is worth it.

Other tips to help you decide

Choose pre-finished flooring 
Look for a UV- (ultraviolet) cured aluminum oxide or acrylic finish with a warranty of more than 25 years. The finish will outperform any job-site-applied finish and eliminate toxic dusts that often result from sanding. The installation process is easier and cheaper because you don’t have to pay for a sanding and finishing job.

Recycle old carpet 
CARE (Carpet America Recovery Effort) is a nonprofit organization that recycles carpets into decking composite lumber, roofing shingles, railroad ties and other materials. Visit them at

Use water-based adhesives with no VOCs or a low amount of VOCs 
Our installers like to avoid glues at all costs. Glues can be tricky to use, and there are specific kinds for certain flooring materials, so ask a professional before tackling the job.

Use recycled or cork padding. Recycled fiber padding is highly insulative and made of post-industrial waste fibers, and cork is rapidly renewable.

Purchase half-inch- or 5/8-inch-thick flooring instead of the industry standard of three-quarter-inch-thick 
It is less wasteful, lasts just as long and is lighter and easier to work with. The sanding process is easier because it is run through the mill more slowly and varies less in its thickness.

[Michelle Garrison is owner/partner of Conscious Flooring, an internet flooring company based here in Asheville.  She has a bachelor of arts degree in sustainable design.  For more information, you can reach her at (828) 712-5069.]