If you want to live “greener” it’s important to make green choices throughout your home, including when it comes to flooring. So when I was trying to select new flooring I did a lot of research to find out which floors are the most environmentally friendly. I found some great choices in all budget ranges.
The 9 most environmentally-friendly flooring materials are:
- Recycled Glass
- Recycled Ceramic
- Wool Carpeting
Why these flooring options are the best and where to use them!
Here’s are 5 questions it’s important to consider when choosing a floor that’s eco-friendly:
- Is the material renewable?
- Can you recycle it after it wears out?
- Does its production require toxic chemicals?
- Is it produced responsibly?
- How long does it last?
Cork is quite “fashionable” and trendy to use as flooring these days and it makes sense because it is very eco-friendly. But cork flooring has actually been around for over 100 years!
There are so many things about cork that make it eco-friendly. One that I love is that cork is that is harvested from living trees (the Cork Oak). Cork is part of the bark and it doesn’t harm the tree to harvest it. In fact, every 8-14 years depending on the tree, you can harvest the cork from a Cork Oak. A single tree can produce cork for about 150 years.
The cork that’s harvested is ground up and then made into sheets and bound together with resins. So it’s an all-natural product, like a hardwood floor, but you don’t have to kill the tree to get the material.
Another environmentally friendly aspect of cork flooring is that it helps reduce waste. When wineries punch out corks for bottles, the leftover pieces of cork can be ground up and made into flooring.
If you’re shopping for cork flooring it’s important to be sure you’re getting cork from a manufacturer that doesn’t use harmful chemicals as binding agents or sealants.
Pros – Cork is much softer to walk on than hardwood or stone flooring. It’s sound deadening as well. So your house will be quieter. It’s long-lasting – cork floors can last 40 years or more when properly maintained.
Cork flooring can actually be refinished like hardwood floors can. Cork is warmer on the feet, even when installed on concrete, because of its insulating properties.
And while this isn’t necessarily related to “eco-friendliness” cork is a pretty affordable option! It’s even a good choice if you want to install your flooring yourself because installation is pretty straight forward.
Cons – Cork is softer than hardwood and because of that heavy furniture or appliances can sometimes dent it. Pet nails can be a problem as well, but not as much as you might think. Cork can fade in sunlight. These last 2 “cons” are true for wood floors, as well.
Bamboo floors are a great option if you’re looking for flooring made with a fully renewable resource. Bamboo grows very quickly on managed plantations. In places where bamboo is grown to make things like flooring harvesting is done every 5 years or so.
All bamboo flooring is considered “engineered flooring” because you always need to slice and shred the strands of bamboo then press them back together using heat and glues to create the “planks.”
Some bamboo floors use formaldehyde in the manufacturing process so off-gassing may occur. You can find bamboo flooring made without formaldehyde. FloorScore and GREENGUARD are two organizations that certify companies who make flooring so you can look for their certifications to make sure you won’t have VOC and formaldehyde emission issues.
Pros – You get the hardness of hardwood without cutting down trees. The “strand-woven” bamboo can be made to mimic the look of exotic hardwoods from Brazil without having to actually cut down those trees. Plus, strand-woven bamboo is actually 2 1/2 times harder than red oak.
Cons – Humidity can affect the flooring with humid climates causing possible buckling and dry climates causing possible shrinkage or cracking. Bamboo flooring can scratch, like hardwood can. Because bamboo flooring is generally grown and manufactured overseas the transportation costs to bring it to us in the U.S. adds to the carbon footprint of the flooring.
NO – wait! Before you decide I’m nuts for listing this it’s important to realize that Linoleum is not the same as sheet vinyl. Sheet vinyl is made from petroleum products. Linoleum is actually made from natural, renewable, non-toxic ingredients like wood flour, cork dust, tree resins, linseed oil, pigments, and sometimes ground limestone.
Linoleum was very popular at one time but lost popularity when vinyl flooring was invented about 1933 and took over the market fter WWII. But linoleum is coming back and is better than ever. Linoleum comes in many different patterns and colors. It wears well and manufacturers are using better sealants to keep it shiny and stain-free without needing to wax it.
Pros – Linoleum has a nice cushiony feel underfoot (from the cork). It is fire retardant and water-resistant. It’s very hard-wearing and you can get linoleum with 25-year warranties. Linoleum is biodegradable and it doesn’t emit any VOCs.
If you’re interested in the colors and styles that linoleum comes in these days you can check out Forbo’s Marmoleum (their brand name for their linoleum) at their website here.
Cons – Linoleum is much stiffer than vinyl flooring so it can be more difficult to install. To solve this problem for DIYers you can get snap together squares that are easier to install
High heels may dent it. Sharp objects may cut it. While linoleum is water-resistant it isn’t waterproof. So while it would be great in the kitchen or the living room. Bathrooms and basements that may have high humidity or standing water spills would not be great places to install linoleum.
Hardwood flooring is beautiful. There’s no question about it. But I love trees and love this planet so the idea of cutting down a beautiful old tree to make a floor is something I pause to consider a bit before doing. Hardwood floors can be eco-friendly. But there are a few things you need to be sure to look for.
First, look for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified seal. This seal ensures that the wood you are getting meets 57 important criteria. This includes protection for loggers and the right for them to unionize if they want to. These criteria also protect the animals and biodiversity of the forests that the wood comes from as well as limiting any toxic chemicals used in the production of the flooring..
An important note: FSC certified wood never comes from clear-cutting forests.
If you are in the market for hardwood floors, you can also look for reclaimed hardwood. This is wood taken from factories or warehouses or other buildings that are being demolished. Reclaimed wood has a beautiful look and it’s great because not only are no new trees being cut down to make the flooring, you’re also keeping a lot of material out of the landfill.
Another option is engineered wood. If you go this route you’ll want to be sure you choose FSC-certified and formaldehyde-free options.
Pros – Hardwood is beautiful and homey and will last many many years. It can also be refinished if necessary.
Cons – Hardwood can scratch. Trees need to be cut down to produce it if you are buying new wood. Reclaimed wood floors can be quite expensive due to the labor intensiveness of removing it from the old building, re-milling it if necessary, removing nails, etc. Hardwood is not great for “wet” areas of the house like the bathroom.
Wool is a renewable resource that has been used to make carpets and rugs for hundreds and even thousands of years. Wool carpeting is soft and welcoming and can be dyed innumerable shades. It’s very colorfast due to the structure of the fiber.
Wool carpet is actually warm as well because wool is a great insulator letting less heat “seep” through your floor and into your basement or crawlspace.
It’s very wear-resistant. Whereas synthetic carpets may show traffic patterns and get matted down after just a few years, wool will spring back over years and years of use.
Wool is biodegradable so it won’t take up space landfills for 100s of years.
Pros – Insulating. Naturally flame resistant. It will last years longer than a synthetic carpet. It can act as a natural dehumidifier/humidifier by absorbing some of the moisture from the air and then releasing it out again in dryer weather. Most simple water-based spills are easy to clean up as the wool fibers are naturally water-resistant.
Cons – It’s pricier than regular carpeting. But then it will likely last you much longer than a synthetic carpet would. It’s not good for moisture-prone areas as it can become “water-logged” and mildew. Oily spills are difficult to clean up. Wools can act as a food supply for moths. Sometimes chemical treatment of the carpet is done to ensure this doesn’t happen. So be sure to check to see if the carpet you are buying has been treated with anything you’d rather not have in your home.
Wool relies on sheep of course and if you are concerned about the humane treatment of sheep then you’ll may want to try to find out the source of the wool in your carpet.
Recycled Glass Tiles
Using recycled glass tiles is a great way to “reduce” the need for new materials when you’re thinking of flooring.
Recycled glass tiles are created by melting down “waste glass” in furnaces and then stamping, trimming and grinding the glass into beautiful multi-colored tiles. You can use them anywhere you would use ceramic tiles like on your shower walls, kitchen backsplashes, and even your floor.
Glass adds a beautiful depth to flooring because you can see through it and it comes in just about any color you can imagine.
Pros – Keeps used glass from going to the landfill. Stain-resistant. Mildew-resistant. Washable. Durable. Once installed it’s difficult to break. Glass tile reflects light so it will make a room appear brighter.
Cons – Can be much more slippery than regular tile when wet. The shininess means it can show footprints more than other floor surfaces. It can be a little tricky to install because the adhesive thin set that the glass tiles are placed into to hold them will show through the glass so you’ll want to be sure you have a smooth background. Quite hard underfoot. Glass tile can scratch. It can be quite expensive per square foot.
Recycled Ceramic Tile
Tile is a very common flooring material and most people know the positive aspects of having a tile floor. The great thing about getting recycled ceramic tile is that it doesn’t use new clay resources and it keeps old tile materials out of the landfill.
Some recycled tile manufacturers use a certain percentage of “scrap” material from the manufacturing process in their tiles, sometimes 50%, sometimes 100%. That’s great because otherwise that waste would end up in a landfill.
Other recycled tile manufacturers use “post-consumer” or “post-industrial” waste, or material that has been used and then reclaimed to make their tiles. So if it’s important to you, you can check that out. Either way is a good way to go. Just Google recycled tile and you’ll be able to find a supplier near you.
Pros – Long-lasting. Fire-resistant. Resists scratches. Easy to clean. Won’t absorb liquids or odors. No toxic chemicals. No off-gassing.
Cons – Hard on the feet and back if you are standing on it a lot. Ceramic tile is not biodegradable, so once you’re done with it it’s important to recycle it.
Stone floors are beautiful and the natural pattern in marble, granite, slate and travertine floors can be just lovely. Stone floors are, not surprisingly, very hard-wearing and will last for years and years.
Pros – Elegant and natural look. Durable. Will add to the value of your home. Cleans easily. Not harmful to the environment in terms of production.
Cons – Really heavy and this adds to installation costs and the transportation costs (carbon footprint). More expensive than many other flooring choices. With Granite flooring, in particular, the weight of the material will require you to be sure your floor can support it.
In buildings that are constructed as slab on grade, concrete floors can be a possible option. Concrete can be polished, dyed and inlaid with other materials like glass and even made to look like tile. But along with the pros listed below comes a healthy helping of things to consider.
Pros – Durable. Easy to clean. Will probably never need to be replaced. If you already need to build with concrete it may help you avoid installing an additional type of flooring thus saving on more material production.
Cons – Concrete itself is not an eco-friendly material – not in the manufacturing process, or in its use or in its eventual disposal. A lot of water and energy are used in its production and when the sand and other aggregates that are used to make concrete are mined the mining process can pollute and destroy the environment.
Two Types of Flooring to Avoid
Recycled Rubber – From recycled tires.
Recycled rubber floors are sometimes touted as an “eco-friendly” choice. But there are a few things that mark them as a “no-go” for home use in my mind. If you are using recycled synthetic rubber, from tires, for example, you’ll keep those tires out of the landfill, which is good.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to deal with the odor of rubber tires. Because even when processed into flooring the rubber will still smell. Rubber floors also stain fairly easily and so are not recommended for use in the kitchen. That’s probably O.K., though because really, who wants to smell tires when they eat.
The other major problem I see with recycled rubber flooring is that it is flammable. AND if it burns it will give off some pretty nasty toxic chemicals.
For an in-home flooring choice, I personally would just stay away from this petroleum-based flooring, even if it is from recycled material.
Vinyl flooring is made from largely from petroleum which is a non-renewable resource.
The “fancy” name for vinyl flooring is poly vinyl chloride. When Chloride is being manufactured it releases dioxins. Dioxins are carcinogens that build up in the body and last in the environment for a long time.
Other toxins are produced when vinyl flooring is being made as well, toxins like ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride just to name two. These toxins can travel for long distances and damage the environment.
Phthalates are also released in the production of a lot of vinyl flooring products. Phthalates are linked with reproductive and respiratory problems in people who have been exposed to them for prolonged periods of time.
Manufacturers are moving toward keeping these chemicals in closed-loop systems so they don’t affect employees or the environment as much. But even after you have your vinyl floor installed Volatile Organic Chemicals, or VOC’s can be released into the air of your home. This can cause respiratory problems over time.
Vinyl is not biodegradable or recyclable. So once you’re done with it it’s going to sit around in a landfill for a very long time.
What to do with your old flooring?
If you’re taking out old carpet you can find out if it is recyclable by checking out https://carpetrecovery.org/ to find a carpet recycler near you.
Warning about vinyl pre-1980s
Before you remove any pre-existing vinyl flooring, make sure you know when it was originally installed. Before the mid-1980s a lot of vinyl tile flooring contained asbestos.
In most cases the tiles in question were about 1/8″ thick or less, and came in standard sizes of 9×9″ or 12×12″. If you suspect your vinyl tile may contain asbestos, do not try to remove it yourself. Inhaling asbestos is can cause serious health problems and anytime material with asbestos in it is moved, opened up, or broken up it can release asbestos into the air.
So it’s best to let a professional take care of this for you the right way to protect yourself and your family.
Thank you for reading this and thanks for your interest in keeping our planet (and our homes) healthy. Every choice we make can help make a positive difference!