8 Tips for Selecting Healthy and Environmentally Sound Flooring
Before shopping, take your lead from architects: Narrow your options by using a technique called programming. Create a chart that lists your desired flooring type (soft or hard), room function, occupants (kids or people with allergies, asthma, or chemical sensitivities), cleaning and maintenance concerns, aesthetic requirements (color, pattern, texture), acoustic requirements (baby’s nursery, older person’s room, entertainment room), and other priorities. Evaluate each flooring material’s fit with the needs in the chart.
When possible, choose materials with recycled content, preferably post-consumer or post-use recycled content.
Increasing the demand for recycled materials lessens the burden on our landfills and creates a market for efficient use of natural resources. I always refer to the State Agency Buy Recycled Campaign to get the latest recommended levels of recycled content for building materials.
Ask what happens to a product after its useful life.
Will the product be landfilled, burned as biomass, downcycled, or recycled? Our landfills are brimming with materials that could be used in other manufacturing processes. Ask if there is a manufacturer-funded program to take back used materials and recycle them into other products or the same materials. Also, long warranties indicate durability, and durability is always good.
Ask about the manufacturer’s environmental policy.
Asking manufacturers to define and publicize their policy forces them to respond to green concerns and ultimately creates change.
For kitchens, bathrooms, and entryways, decide whether you need a hard surface or a resilient surface.
Hard surfaces include stone and tile, while examples of resilient surfaces are rubber, linoleum, and cork. Resilient materials provide foot support, but they also may affect indoor air quality, so you should assess those potential effects. Recycled-content rubber often has an odor, as does the linseed oil in linoleum. Cork products need to be well sealed because of the porous and soft nature of the material. Look for a product that is factory sealed with water-based, low-VOC sealers.
Both hard and resilient surfaces have resource efficiency benefits if you can get a locally manufactured material with recycled content.
Get proof that your wood flooring was sustainably harvested, reclaimed, or salvaged.
If you are considering “sustainably harvested” wood flooring, ask to see chain-of-custody certification or other documentation that provides proof of the wood’s source and a paper trail of its travels. The Forest Stewardship Council‘s standard is the most trustworthy of “good wood” standards, because it is an independent third party, not a forest or paper industry “self certifier.” FSC certification provides documented proof that the wood was harvested with sustainable methods. If you are using reclaimed or salvaged wood, ask to see as much documentation as possible for the source of the wood.
Avoid wood that has been painted, glued, or otherwise coated.
Reclaimed wood that has been previously coated may contain lead or arsenic-based wood preservatives. Until Dec. 31, 2003, arsenic (chromated copper arsenate) was widely used as a preservative in pressure-treated lumber. Lead was widely used as a pigment and drying agent in alkyd oil-based paint before the federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978. Ask questions and buy from trustworthy suppliers.
Find out if the installation method will use materials that can affect the environmental health of your home.
If the flooring material will be adhered to a substrate or sealed with a topcoat, ask if the adhesive or sealer contains and emits VOCs and whether it’s been certified to meet a recommended emissions standard such as Greenguard, Green Seal, or California’s Section 01350 testing protocol. I prefer the 01350 testing protocol because it references specific VOC limits for more than 70 chemicals. See the California Integrated Waste Management Board’s overview of Section 01350.
Decide how much time you’re willing to devote and what kinds of cleaning products you’re willing to use to maintain your new flooring.
You probably will prefer a low-maintenance floor, so ask how often it will need to be polished, sealed, waxed, sanded, or buffed. And find out what your cleaning options are: some products may add potentially harmful chemicals to your indoor environment.
Regularly maintained carpets can be comfortable and insulating, but if they are not cleaned regularly, they become dirt traps, providing a nest for indoor pollutants and particulates. See this EPA resource page on green cleaning for more details.