Is cork flooring really a green product? It seems fairly accepted that it's a renewable raw material, but is the final product really green?

Asked by Sandra
Far Hills, NJ

My church is considering cork flooring because it is touted as "green." It seems fairly accepted that it is a renewable raw material, but is the final product really green? Is the manufacturing process green? Are the transportation methods green? Are several layers of polyurethane and/or vinyl coating green? It seems to me we are jumping on a bandwagon without digging deep enough. Can you help?


David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

March 9, 2010

This is a great question and the fact that you're asking it indicates a deepening awareness of what makes something "green." Frequently, when I'm asked if something is green (or if something is greener than something else), my somewhat-less-than-satisfying answer will be "it depends." That's because the definition of "green" has many shades. And there's really no such thing as a totally green material.

Cork is not merely a renewable material but is considered rapidly renewable. That's because, unlike most other wood products, the tree -- a type of oak -- is not cut down. Its bark is harvested by peeling it off, and then the tree regrows its bark and can be harvested again in about nine years. Furthermore, cork flooring is often made from scraps from the wine corking process. In other words, from pre-consumer recycled material.

Yet another positive factor is that, unlike the other trendy green flooring choice, bamboo, cork is not being overharvested. As the wine industry has moved from cork to plastic and metal stoppers, demand for cork has actually fallen.

But, as you bring up, there are some negative factors to look at as well. One is transportation. Cork is grown in Spain and Portugal so, like, bamboo, it has to travel quite a distance to get to your church. That distance translates to a carbon footprint. When looked at that way, a strong argument can be made that a responsibly harvested (or, better yet, salvaged) local wood is more eco than cork.

It's also great that you are asking about finishes. With polyurethane finishes, you'll want to make sure it is a water-based urethane and that it is solvent-free and contains low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). You can alternatively finish it with wax, but that needs more maintenance.

There are some other great reasons to use cork. It is sound absorbing (which might be good or bad in a church...) and softer than wood underfoot. So if your services have you standing for long periods, you might argue for the cork on those grounds!

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