What is Sustainable Flooring?

As people become more aware of the damage caused to our planet through the misuse and waste of resources, they are starting to look for factors beyond price and style in their search for flooring – for many people keen to be environmentally-responsible, choosing sustainable flooring has become a priority.

How is Flooring Sustainable?

Traditional flooring industries use many products that are harmful to the environment, whether in their energy-intensive production, in the pollution they produce or in the non-biodegradable waste which poisons the environment for decades after the flooring has been discarded. Chief among these is petroleum products, particularly polypropylene which is used in the manufacture of carpets and many other backing materials, as well as in adhesives and protective finishes.

Many environmentally-sensitive manufacturers are now looking at ways of reducing the damage to the environment, by promoting “sustainable flooring”. This is flooring which is:

  • Made of materials from sustainable or renewable sources (eg. bamboo, cork)
  • Made of recycled materials (eg. reclaimed wood)
  • Made of materials that are managed and harvested responsibly (eg, hardwood from sustainable forests)
  • Made with materials that have a long life cycle, so that they are not frequently replaced, thus producing more waste and using up more energy.
  • Uses non-toxic methods for installation, as most adhesives contain very high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and other toxic chemicals (eg. nailing down wooden floors or opting for “floating floors”). If adhesives must be used, they should be water-based versions with low-VOC emissions.
  • Uses non-toxic materials in its backing and finish (eg. natural linoleum)

Types of Sustainable Flooring

There is now a wide range of options for those looking to install sustainable flooring in their homes and workplaces. The most popular eco-friendly flooring alternatives are bamboo, cork, natural linoleum and wood from sustainable plantations. Other less common and possibly more expensive options include reclaimed wood, natural plant fibre flooring (eg. sisal carpets), recycled metal tiles, recycled glass and recycled carpet, as well as possibly stone flooring from well-managed quarries.

Like traditional flooring, eco-friendly flooring options each have their benefits and drawbacks. For example, cork and bamboo are more sustainable and renewable than hardwood but they are also more prone to damage and therefore may need replacing more frequently. Similarly, natural linoleum although cheap and great for the environment, can deteriorate easily and the constant replacement of new flooring represents an additional carbon cost to the environment.

Transport must also be considered – for example, reclaimed wood is a recycled material but its transport from the original site, through refinishing and the retailer, to the final destination, may add a hefty carbon footprint which negates the benefits of its recycled status. There are also practical aspects to consider – for example, many of the natural plant fibre floor coverings do not tolerate moisture well and are unsuitable for certain areas of the house or particularly humid climates. Other types of flooring may not comfortable to sit on (if used in living areas) or may be too hard underfoot, or even too cold in British climates.

Choosing sustainable flooring

Again, like traditional flooring, make sure that you shop around when looking at eco-friendly flooring options. Don’t be taken in by the first company making dramatic environmental claims – research the type of flooring you are interested in and compare the products of different suppliers, if possible. Make sure you are aware of the certification and standards required for the type of sustainable flooring your are interested in and check that your supplier complies. Prices can vary hugely so get different quotes and compare; also check the composition of the product so that you are not paying “elite environmental prices” for something which only contains 1% recycled plastic.

Whichever type of sustainable flooring you choose, make sure that the installation and any finishing required also uses eco-friendly products. It is no use going to great lengths to find a 100% biodegradable natural floor covering, only to use the most toxic chemicals in its installation! Look for flooring installers that provide eco-safe services and choose the many less-toxic, more eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional adhesives and chemicals.