Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Carpets

While synthetic carpet is one of the most popular choices for floor coverings, it is also one of the unhealthiest types of flooring, both for you and for the environment.

What’s Wrong with Synthetic Carpet?

The first thing is its composition, which is primarily made up of petroleum products, such as nylon, vinyl and PVC. Most carpet consists of 3 layers: the base, the backing and the surface fibres – and all of these contain toxic agents embedded in the adhesives, binders, any anti-microbial treatments, colourings and stainings – and even in the materials of the backing and fibres themselves. The toxic agents release fumes which may be undetectable by the human nose but which may be slowly and surely harming your health, as well as contributing to general air pollution.

Futhermore, the manufacture and processing of carpets, as well as the distribution – and finally the disposal, all require huge amounts of energy consumption and associated pollution to the environment. Disposal creates the biggest problem in pollution, with synthetic carpets clogging up landfills for decades with toxic, non-biodegradable materials. As most synthetic carpets cannot be recycled, this means the carpet industry is pouring millions of tonnes of waste onto the Earth.

And finally, synthetic carpets can add to our increasing problems with respiratory conditions and immune-mediated reactions, such as allergies. Carpet is difficult to clean thoroughly – even regular vacuuming will only remove the top layer of dirt, with much more dirt, dust, pollen and other allergens being trapped deeper within the fibres. In fact, synthetic carpet makes things worse by developing static charges which actually attract the build-up of allergenic particles. All this contributes to the development of asthma and allergies, as well as medical conditions related to sensitivities to the chemicals in the carpet and any other pollutants released into the air – and possibly even cancer.

To add insult to injury, properly cleaning your carpet often then requires a professional process which uses very harsh and toxic chemicals, creating even more pollutants to your health and to the environment.

All of these reasons show that synthetic carpet is actually a very bad choice of flooring, with some going to far as to call it a “toxic sponge”, and the recommendation to avoid choosing synthetic carpet it if at all possible.

What are the Alternatives?

There are many who believe that hard flooring is a much healthier alternative to carpets altogether. While there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support the thought that hard flooring reduces the incidences of asthma and allergies, it is generally believed that hard surfaces are less likely to harbour allergens and much easier to clean properly. However, be careful of the type of hard flooring you choose because it can be just as un-environmentally-friendly as carpet if it comes from unsustainable sources and made from non-biodegradable materials.

Timber flooring is a good example of this and should only be chosen if the wood comes from sustainably managed forest plantations that carry the correct certification, or is wood that is being re-used (ie. reclaimed wood). Similarly, stone flooring can be controversial if the quarry it is extracted from has been badly managed and designed, so that it is causing even more damage to the environment.

<#69#>Bamboo<#> and <#67#>cork<#> are two good choices for “hard” eco-friendly flooring. Both of these come from renewable resources, which if harvested sustainably, cause no damage to the environment. Linoleum is a another good choice if it is completely “natural” linoleum, which uses natural plant-fibre backings and non-toxic adhesives.

If you must have soft flooring, then consider some of the natural plant fibre coverings which make very good alternatives to traditional carpet. These include sisal, coir, seagrass and jute. They all have a unique natural beauty, are durable and easy to maintain and provide natural sound insulation as well as, in many cases, natural anti-bacterial properties.

For those who insist on carpet, then consider 100% wool carpets. Again, it comes from a sustainable source, is 100% natural and biodegradable. It is also one of the most luxurious forms of floor coverings, far superior to synthetic carpet in texture, durability and plushness. It is resistant to soiling and moisture, is naturally anti-static and fire-resistant, and is also less hospitable to dust mites.

However, be aware that the transport of wool involves long distances (since it is usually produced in remote countries like New Zealand) and therefore does also require a considerable carbon and energy cost. Also, the animal agriculture required is a fairly resource-hungry activity, particularly if not practised in a sustainable manner. In addition, one criticism of wool carpets is that it is often treated with moth-proofing chemicals which may emit volatile organic compounds – however, it is possible to obtain “environmentally-friendly” wool carpets which are untreated, use jute backing and only natural dyes for colouring.