Dear EarthTalk: I like the feel of carpeting, but I’m concerned about all the chemicals. What are some good non-chemical (but still soft!) options?
— Jennifer Jones, Madison, WI
Modern day carpets, in all their plush and stain-resistant glory, are wonders of technology and help make our homes and workplaces more comfortable. But the typical carpet, made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, contains dozens of chemicals and gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other potential toxins—and they can compromise indoor air quality for years on end and cause dangerous reactions in the sensitive among us, including little ones and the elderly.
Fortunately today there are many green options when it comes to carpeting and alternative floor coverings. Green Depot—the nation’s leading supplier of environmentally friendly building products, services and home solutions with 13 retail stores nationwide—sells a lot of wool carpeting, which is typically all-natural, renewable and is the most logical option for those who want the look and feel of real carpet without the chemical impact. Wool carpeting is pricier than synthetic, but those seeking peace-of-mind might not mind paying a premium. Some leading makers of all-natural wool carpeting include Bloomsburg, Earth Weave, Helios, Natural Home and Woolshire. Wool is also a great material for rug pads, as it dampens sound, inhibits mold and provides insulation. Green Depot’s favorite is Whisper Wool Underlayment.
Some other choices in all-natural carpet include sisal, coir and seagrass—though these all-natural materials tend to be harder than traditional carpeting and as such might take some getting used to underfoot. Contempo Floor Coverings is one of the leaders in this up-and-coming segment of the flooring industry.
Another green option is carpet tiles, because small sections rather than entire carpets can be replaced when stains or other problems occur. One particularly green carpet tile manufacturer is FLOR, whose products are made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. The company also takes back its old carpet tiles for recycling and reconstitution into new recycled fibers and backing materials. FLOR’s products use some synthetic materials, but most styles meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute’s “Green Label Plus” standards for low VOCs. Greenfloors.com offers yet another option for synthetic carpeting made from recycled and recyclable materials, while Mohawk’s Aladdin carpet is made from recycled PET soda bottles.
While carpeting in one form or another is no doubt the softest option, cork flooring is also warm and somewhat cushy. Cork is inherently green because it’s made from the bark of the cork oak tree which grows back every three years with little to no fertilizer or pesticides needed. It’s also resistant to mildews, molds and other unwelcome microbes. Cork flooring is also a nice choice to “warm up” kitchen and bathroom floors. U.S. Floors offers a wide variety of cork and other sustainable flooring options.
Of course, keeping tidy is also key to a healthy indoor environment: Frequent vacuuming of rugs and cleaning of flooring can help reduce exposure to toxins like lead and pesticides that can be tracked in from outside. Using doormats and removing shoes when coming inside can also help mitigate such risks.