When we realized the complexity of choosing a good indoor walking surface for our house, we were, in a word, floored. Of course, we wanted to use a sustainable material and we were surprised about what was sustainable and what was not.
We started with some common-sense guidelines. A sustainable floor should not:
- Take a long time to grow or produce. We think of renewable materials as being sustainable, but conventional wood flooring, such as oak and maple, contribute to the degradation of our forests because they take an inefficient amount of time to regrow to a mature size.
- Be heavy to transport or come from a distant location because transportation usually uses fossil fuels. This is a drawback of marble, stone, terrazzo, and terra cotta unless you already have them available in your backyard.
- Be manufactured from petroleum – that eliminates vinyl. In addition, burning vinyl can release dioxins and other hazardous chemicals. Harmful additives such as phthalates and heavy metals can leach out of the estimated 150,000 metric tons of vinyl discarded each year in Canada.
So what’s left?
Some hardwood flooring is acceptable if it is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Canada certified, an international certification system supported by WWF Canada, Greenpeace, and the David Suzuki Foundation. They certify every step of the industry from the forests to the supplier, providing a chain of documentation for the buyer. The increasing popularity of FSC certified wood has brought the cost to only 0-15% higher than non-certified market prices, creating an affordable environmental choice for concerned consumers. Do your research, because other certification systems are industry or government backed and do not provide legitimate proof that their wood is actually from sustainable sources. Re-used wood flooring is clearly the best idea if you can find it nearby.
Sealed concrete floors are popular for industrial and commercial areas. They are cheap, durable, and easy to maintain, but concrete is extremely energy intensive to make and transport, and produces a significant amount of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Geopolymer concrete uses “fly ash,” an industrial by-product, as a substitute for Portland cement, the most widely produced man-made material on earth. So geopolymer concrete may be worth considering.
Laminate is a floor covering that looks similar to hardwood but is made with a plywood or medium density fiberboard (MDF) core with a plastic laminate top layer. HDF laminate consists of high density fiberboard topped by one or more layers of decorative paper and a transparent protective layer. Laminate may be more durable than hardwood, but is often made of melamine resin, a compound made with formaldehyde. There has been increasing concern about indoor air quality from releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building materials made with formaldehyde.
Recycled rubber flooring is incredibly tough and good looking. Typically made from recycled tires, this flooring is generally considered a “low-impact,” environmentally friendly building material. Flooring that contains recycled rubber is a cheaper and more durable choice than synthetic or virgin rubber with less environmental impact. However, this flooring does emit some volatile organic compounds, but they are minimal and it does not contain polyvinyl chloride or formaldehyde.
Along with FSC certified wood, bamboo is a renewable resource. It typically stops growing and falls down after six years, so it might as well be used. A bamboo floor is beautiful and harder than an oak floor, but recent demand has flooded the market with manufacturers that are producing poor quality flooring made with toxic adhesives. Typically, newer manufacturers are choosing premature bamboo stalks and not kiln drying their bamboo enough. In addition, some are using poorly operated mills so the production of bamboo flooring has social impacts on labour, requires transit energy, contains little to no recycled material, can negatively impact ecosystems, and can have a negative effect on indoor air quality. To date, bamboo forests have not replaced natural forest areas but they do create a monoculture which has less biodiversity.
Cork is harvested from the bark of the cork oak tree every nine to eleven years, allowing the tree to live its full life expectancy of 150 to 250 years. Cork is colourful and very beautiful but it might accumulate small nicks and gouges if you have young children. Its unique cellular structure has natural thermal and acoustic insulation, creating a warm and quiet surface to walk on. Cork, with its 100 million prism-shaped air-filled cells per cubic inch, creates a low impact surface that is great for the back, feet, and joints. It is naturally antimicrobial, and it creates a comfortable atmosphere for those living and playing closer to the ground.
Natural linoleum is made primarily from linseed oil, rosin, sawdust, corkdust, limestone, and jute. It is natural, available in a wide range of styles and colors, reasonably priced, durable, and easy to install and clean. However, it may curl over time, wear out if thin, or be somewhat difficult to repair. It also has a slight odour so sensitive people will want to test a sample to be certain they are not bothered by the smell. The quality of the flooring can make a big difference in its wearability, so choose a well-known brand with a good warranty.
Carpets, whether made from natural or artificial ingredients, accumulate dust, mites, molds, bacteria and other pollutants that can affect health. After installation, off-gassing can occur for weeks or months requiring increased ventilation. Carpet backings are made up of a polypropylene mesh or jute with a latex bonding agent that may have high VOCs. Most carpets are also treated for stain and fire resistance, and these treatments can also be a source of emissions.
Seagrass carpet comes from a grass grown in the paddy fields of China. After sea water is used to flood the fields, the grass is harvested, dried, spun into a durable yarn, and woven into carpet. Coir carpet is made from coconut husks that are soaked for many months, beaten, washed, and dried. The resulting pale fibers are then spun into a type of yarn. Because it is susceptible to water damage, coir carpet should not be installed in kitchens and baths, but it is a durable, tough floor covering.
So those are just some of the choices. What did we choose? Cork. Even though it travelled from Portugal, no trees were cut to make our cork flooring. It is beautiful, resilient, durable, easy to maintain, and warm. Perfect for an in-floor heating system and just what we wanted on our floors.