Question

What resources are used to manufacture natural fiber carpet?

Asked by Christine Wong, Ithaca, NY

I'd like to know more about plant-fiber floorings such as sisal, jute, coir, and sea grass. What are the resources used to manufacture these flooring products? And what happens to these materials when they must be thrown away?

Answer

Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

June 17, 2008

Your question makes a great case study for a technique I use with my clients in evaluating materials choices. I call it the "gut LCA" (Life Cycle Analysis). One reason homeowners sometimes steer away from green materials is that the evaluation process is complex.

I use three simple questions to help people decide whether they want to use a material. Let's use these three questions to evaluate woven plant-fiber floorings.

1. Do you like what it did while it was being made?

Natural-fiber floorings like sisal and sea grass—as well as paper cord and water hyacinth—are made of rapidly renewable natural materials. These materials are processed and woven in very low-tech factories using local labor. Most production is in Asia, which means that the product is shipped a long distance before you purchase it. This adds to the product's carbon footprint.

It might be worth asking the wholesale source of the product what they know about the labor practices of the manufacturer. It is hard to know if a living wage was paid when a product was made in a distant country. Woven oriental carpets have a RugMark certification that ensures no children were employed as weavers. Unfortunately, there is no such certification for natural-fiber flooring products. The more consumers ask about fair labor practices, the sooner we will have a similar evaluation tool for these products.

My conclusion? Rapidly renewable and natural, which is good, but not locally made, which is less good.

2. Do you like what it does while you have it?

Of course you should love the way your flooring looks. But will the plant-fiber carpeting last well in your setting? Most plant-fiber flooring is fairly sensitive to moisture discoloration, so you should make sure you place it in an area where you can protect it from spills. Sea grass, because it is grown in saltwater marshes, is the most stain-resistant option.

Because these are natural products, as opposed to man-made fibers, they typically do not trigger reactions in chemically sensitive individuals. Be sure to ask if the backing is also natural; rubber-tree latex is often used as a backing, but sometimes the backings are man-made.

You should also keep in mind that any wall-to-wall installation of soft flooring has the potential to become a dust sink. Because of the texture, and because it can't be wet-mopped to remove dust, carpeting can aggravate allergies. Pollen and other particles can get trapped in the weave of the carpet and can be impossible to completely vacuum out. If a client wants carpet, I often ask if we can limit it to areas that are more than 20 steps from any door to the house. This allows residents to walk off some of the dirt they track in before they reach the soft floor.

My conclusion? The primary consideration here is visual. It is important that you love the look of anything you will allow into your home. One concern in this phase is whether you can protect these materials from spills and from harboring allergens.

3. Do you like where this product goes when you are done with it?

You asked about disposal, and that shows you're already thinking about the life cycle of the products you buy. My favorite materials are those that can biodegrade or be recycled endlessly. An example of the latter is anything made of steel, and an example of the former is plant-fiber flooring. Conventional carpet disposal puts a strain on landfills. Nylon or polyester fibers do not biodegrade, and according to one statistic I heard, 800 million square yards of carpet are thrown away every year!

Even if a material can biodegrade, it won't necessarily do so in a landfill. Most landfills are dry and airless, and microbes need air and water to break down materials. If your municipality has a composting program for yard waste, you could contact them to see if they will accept your used natural-fiber flooring. If they won't, try contacting a local recycler of construction and demolition waste. These providers often have a system for wood scraps that are too small for reuse—your natural-fiber carpet, also being a plant product, might be accepted for recycling here. The wood is usually chipped and used as a ground cover, composted, or used to cover trash at the dump.

My conclusion? Plant-fiber flooring is one of the few fully biodegradable home furnishing products; I like that! But you might have to make an effort to make sure it actually gets composted.

It's useful to know what your goals are in choosing a material. Do you want to reduce the amount of waste you produce? Do you want to lower your carbon footprint and build the local economy by buying local products? Do you want to choose products that are allergen and chemical free? If one of these considerations is primary, it will affect how you look at the three product-evaluation questions. Good luck choosing!

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Tagged In: lca, green carpet

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