Published: Nov/Dec 2004
The DIY craze, fuelled by TV makeover shows, mean that we're constantly changing our home environment. However, while much thought is put into the aesthetics, how much is put into the environmental impacts of the materials we use? Ruth Rosselson investigates.
When thinking about what flooring to install, there are a number of questions we need to consider. What is the flooring made from? How much energy went into its production? How far has it travelled to get here? How long will it last? The more durable it is, the less likely we are to need to replace it so that the burden on the environment is smaller. What will happen when we do dispose of it? Will it biodegrade? Can the materials be recycled? Or reused? We'll unpack these questions for most of the different types of floorings on the market.
Impacts in the home
There is a further question we need to consider, which is "what will happen to my indoor environment when this flooring is in my home?" Our homes are the places where we spend a good deal of our time, yet we often put little thought into how toxic these environments can be. "The dust mite allergens can trigger asthma, eczema and possibly other illnesses as well" says Helen Lynn from the Healthy Flooring Network.(1) "Fitted carpets act as a reservoir for dust and can trap toxic pollutants from inside and outside the home," she explains. Not only that, but some materials can give off pollutants themselves ? either from the chemicals used to treat the flooring, or from the flooring itself.
Sick Building Syndrome can result in a cluster of different symptoms including headaches, lethargy, sore throats and lack of concentration.(2) It is thought that it could be caused by a number of different factors, including airborne toxins coming from the building, including flooring.(2) Greenpeace research from 2003 analysed house dust from 100 households across the country and found levels of chemicals from five hazardous chemical groups, including phthlates, brominated flame retardants and organotins.(3) Helen Lynn warns that children are particularly vulnerable to hazardous chemicals and recommends that new parents avoid redecorating homes and nurseries because of this.
As well as being aesthetically appealing, a hardwood floor from reclaimed sources can be a good environmental choice and in the opinion of the experts we spoke to, one of the best choices you can make. "Hardwood floors are great" says Tessa Robertson, head of the Forest Programme at WWF UK. "Not only are they not made from chemicals, but they're biodegradable too. It is by far the best environmental option if it's from a guaranteed source" she says. Wood is good because it is a natural resource, little energy has gone into its production and it is long-lasting. Using timber means that you're preventing CO2 from being released into the atmosphere which happens when trees are burnt or rot, and CO2 is the gas which contributes to Global Warming.(2)
If you can't get reclaimed wood, then the next best thing is wood that has come from sustainable sources. The FSC-certification is the only certification scheme endorsed by environmental campaign groups, including the WWF. "Any wood that isn't FSC can't be guaranteed as coming from well-managed forests" says Tessa Roberston, "We've looked at other studies and other schemes and came to the conclusion that the FSC was the only scheme that supports good forest management and is the only one we support." Choosing wood from the UK or Europe if you can, means a lower impact as it will have travelled a shorter distance.
Tessa warns that a large amount of timber coming from Indonesia, West and Central Africa could have been logged illegally, or logged using damaging methods such as clearcutting. "We worry that these methods upset the ecological balance" she says.
Four of the companies on our tables were supplying wood classed by Friends of the Earth as from vulnerable or near extinct species: Boen, Allied Carpets, English Timbers and the Natural Flooring Company. Boen was selling floors made from Merbu and Afzelia, both classed by Friends of the Earth as vulnerable to extinction, and African teak and Iroko, which were near-threatened. Merbu was also being sold by the Natural Flooring Company, Allied Carpets and English Timbers. The FSC website (see contacts) lists where you can find FSC-certified flooring. The only retailer on the table currently supplying FSC-certified hardwood at the time of writing was Allied Carpets.
Fashionable during the 1970s, true Linoleum is a natural floor covering made from linseed oil (from the flax plant) and other natural and renewable ingredients such as cork and wood flour. According to the experts we spoke to, it's one of the most sustainable flooring materials available. It is also naturally anti-bacterial and so won't have had to be treated with unsavoury chemicals. Instead, it gives off linseed oil vapour which kills off bacteria without being toxic to humans.(4) It is extremely durable, with a life-span of between 30 and 40 years, and will biodegrade at the end of its life. If you do choose lino, make sure the backing is also made from natural fibres. Forbo-Nairn's Marmoleum uses jute as a backing.
Since the boom in DIY house programmes, laminate flooring has soared in popularity. Laminates can be a good choice in that they use up smaller pieces of wood and waste products of felling that may not get used elsewhere, and this can also decrease the demand for using of virgin timber.(2, 4)
FSC-certified laminate flooring is also much more readily available than hardwood flooring. However, laminate flooring does have a number of disadvantages. Firstly, it is less durable and so likely to need repairing and replacing much sooner than hardwood or lino flooring. It also takes far more energy to produce - about 15 times that required to produce rough sawn timber.(5) Thirdly, laminate flooring involves a number of different chemicals which can be problematic for the indoor environment. "The problem with laminates" says Helen Lynn is that they may be "toxic in terms of the glues used to put them together, and these do off-gas [give off fumes]. I would not recommend them at all if possible." Mark Strutt from Greenpeace agrees. "You need to be careful because the glues in laminates can contain formaldehyde," he warns. According to CAT, Formeldehyde can be irritating to skin, eyes and the respiratory system, and is possibly carcinogenic.(2) "Look out for low or no VOC adhesives which are a lot less toxic" says Helen Lynn. However, according to Keith Hall from the Building for A Future magazine, the glue is less of an issue than the coating used, such as polyurethane."Usually, on plywood laminate, the glue used is very low" he says. " Look for the origin of the timber and whether it has a polyurethane coating which can be problematic and cause sick building syndrome." According to Mark Strutt some wood laminates can also be coated with PVC. Helen Lynn recommends buying laminates from companies such as B&Q and IKEA who both have more developed policies regarding toxic chemicals.
Vinyl flooring is made from polyvinyl choloride (PVC), combined with fungicides, pigments and plasticisers.(7) Vinyl flooring, while being an extremely durable and cheap option, is problematic from many other angles. PVC requires a lot of energy to produce, and is likely to contain chlorinated paraffin, organotins and phthlates, which can leach out during its lifespan. "The concern with vinyl flooring is that the chemicals involved - phthlates, DH2 in particular - can cause hormone disruption, especially in young children and in the womb, although the links are difficult to prove" warns Giles Watson. He argues that these chemicals can evaporate into the air and will be inhaled through our household dust. PVC flooring is also is difficult to dispose of. "When PVC is incinerated, it is extremely toxic and produces carcinogenic nasty chemicals known as dioxins" he explains. "Although some are removed, there are still some that escape to the environment. They are persistent, bioaccumulative and are the toxic chemical by which all other organic chemicals are judged" he says. PVC is also bad because high levels of organochlorines are found around PVC manufacturing plants, which have been linked with cancer, immune system damage and are thought to be hormone disrupting chemicals.(2)
Cork as a material has many environmental and social benefits and is a renewable and sustainable resource. It is a good environmental choice because, not only is it natural and requiring little energy to produce, no trees are actually cut down to harvest it. Instead, the cork is stripped off the trees which are then left for nine years, allowing the bark to grow back completely. A Cork oak can live for 150 - 200 years and will not be harvested until it is 25-30 years old. Cork forests in Spain, Portugal and Tunisia are home to a variety of endangered wildlife including the imperial eagle and barbery deer. Unfortunately, they're also under threat because the demand for cork stoppers for wine has declined as the popularity for plastic corks has increased. The cork industry is also a huge provider of jobs. As a flooring, cork can be an excellent choice because of its honeycomb-like structure. This means that it retains its elasticity and reduces sound and is comfortable to walk on. Cork also good because it doesn't absorb dust and so is less likely to cause allergies. It is also inherently fire resistant and will not release toxic gases on combustion.(2,5)
Unfortunately, according to our experts, many cork floorings are pre-finished with polyurethane or PVC, neither of which are desirable chemicals to have in the home. The main cork manufacturer covered on the table - Wicanders - uses a PVC finish on all its products and for that reason can't be recommended. Get unsealed cork flooring and seal it yourself with low VOC varnish, recommends Giles Watson from WWF. B&Q's CorkLOC flooring has not been sealed with pvc, has used water- based adhesives and the HDF board within is FSC-certified so it appears to be a good choice.
Carpets can be split up into two different kinds ? those made from natural materials (wool, linen, cotton) and those from synthetic fibres (nylon, polyester). Synthetic carpets are less durable and often require a latex bonding agent to hold them together. The dyes are also often derived from petrochemicals and the substances used to fix them could also contain heavy metals including lead, tin and titanium, which may be discharged from the factories into rivers, where they are highly toxic.(4) Synthetic carpets are also chemically treated, according to Mark Strutt. "Brominated flame retardants are still added to synthetic carpets" he warns. This is to make them fire resistant. "Sometimes there's also anti-bacterial chemicals in there and organic tins which are extremely dangerous, priority listed chemicals for phase-out. These are persistent bioaccumulated toxins there to kill dust mites and are often [but not always] added to the carpets as a treatment."
Natural carpets are a better option. Traditionally, they do not rely on a bonding agent, contain fewer chemicals and are hardwearing. However, even natural carpets aren't without their drawbacks. "Wool which has been imported could have discharges of DDT - a globally banned pesticide and it's found on imported wool" says Mark Strutt. In the UK, we also use organophosphate as sheep dip and residues could also be found on your carpet. These chemicals are thought to be implicated in some of the health problems experienced by British sheep farmers. Sheep dip is also discharged into rivers and thought to be partly responsible for the decline in fish stocks. You also need to look at the underlay used in your carpet. Natural underlays made from hessian or jute are more desirable as synthetic underlays can also emit VOCs. Polyurethane foam, latex foam or PVC are the ones to avoid.
Greenpeace's chemical home survey rated three of the carpet companies on our table.(8) According to the research Axminster Carpets discharged banned and restricted pesticides from its factory and these may be present in the carpets. However, the company did state that it did not use brominated flame retardants or organotins in its products. Stoddard International carpets were likely to contain Brominated Flame Retardants, Organotins and Endocrine Disrupters. Victoria Carpets products were also likely to contain similar pollutants, although the company had specified to Greenpeace a date by which it will remove the problematic chemicals.
Fitted carpets are not recommended by the Healthy Flooring Network because they harbour dust mites and are likely to cause or aggravate allergies. "No matter how scrupulous the cleaning, carpets are always a cesspool for particles and dust" says Grazyna Pilatowicz in "Eco-Interiors - a guide to environmentally conscious interior design".(9) She also points out that most cleaning solutions for carpets, as for many other finishes, may introduce highly toxic chemicals. If you do decide on carpets, Helen recommends you choose rugs over fitted carpets because these can be taken out and shaken. After installing new carpets, allow around three to four weeks of off-gassing, and increase the ventilation to the room, to aid the off-gassing process.(9)
There are a number of natural, sustainable alternative floorings available. These include rattan (a type of palm), seagrass (grown in China's paddy fields), sisal (from Brazil and East Africa), jute (a plant from Bangladesh & India) and bamboo. Bamboo is a quick growing plant ? it can grow up to sixty feet in the first several months of growth. It can be cheaper than hardwood flooring, and is a sustainable, natural material. However, bamboo can be treated with insecticides, preservatives or formaldehyde, warns Keith Hall. All these floorings will also have travelled half way across the world to get here and come from countries with low-wage economies where workers' rights are often abused. Unfortunately, none of the companies supplying these products were able to supply ECRA with a code of conduct for workers' rights for their overseas suppliers.
For an industry with far-reaching environmental impacts, the response to our request for environmental policies was extremely disappointing. The companies performing best are the retailers, who have previously been under pressure from consumer groups to improve their environmental credentials. Those receiving clear marks include IKEA, B&Q and Homebase. Sadly, the manufacturers, who have so far remained immune to consumer campaigns, performed much worse in this category. Ironically, one of the two manufacturers to receive a clear mark in ECRA's rating system for its policy was James Halstead plc, whose products we are unable to recommend because they are manufactured from PVC. Interface also had an excellent environmental policy with dated and quantified targets for the future. The company has also implemented a number of environmental initiatives, including schemes to collect used carpet tiles and refurbish them, and its UK headquarters buys Green Tariff energy. None of the companies have mentioned a phase-out of PVC. A number have shown an awareness of, and commitment to, FSC-certification schemes. Companies using FSC-certification in their products include: B&Q, Focus Wickes, Homebase, Egger, Kronospan and Tarkett Sommer. Although IKEA did not label its wood products as such, according to Tessa Robertson from the WWF, it does source much of its wood from FSC-certification schemes.
1 Conversation with Helen Lynn from WEN on 15/9/04
2 E-mail from Lucy at CAT, 12/9/04
3 Consuming Chemicals - Hazardous Chemicals in house dust as an indicator of chemical exposure in the home, Greenpeace, April 2003
4 Green Building Handbook, ACTAC, Tom Woolley, Sam Kimmins, Paul Harrison & Rob Harrison, 1997
5 The Whole House Book - Ecological Building Design & Materials Pat Borer and Cindy Harris CAT Publications,
6 Conversation with Keith Hall, Building for a Future magazine. 12/9/04
7 Good Housekeeping. The Eco-Friendly Home
8 Greenpeace Chemical Home website,
9 Eco-Interiors - A guide to environmentally conscious interior design Grazyna Pilatowicz
10 Friends of the Earth, Dodgy Chemicals Campaign, 2000
11 Who Owns Whom 2003/4 Dun & Bradstreet,
12 Labour Research, February 2003 / The Guardian August 1st 2003
13 Red Pepper, September 2003
14 Kingfisher Annual Review, 2003, Labour Research, September 2003
15 research into IKEA's supply chain by SOMO, June 2002
16 Allied Carpets Website, viewed in September 2004
17 Alloc Website, viewed in September 2004
18 email to ECRA Publishing, September 2004
19 Amorim website viewed Sept 2004
20 ERT Website, September 2002 www.ertb.be/pc/pcb/encb01.htm
21 Armstrong Website viewed in September 2004
22 Conversation with Richard Lawrence of Axminster Carpets 31st August 2004
23 Boen website, viewed September 2004
24 Conversation with spokesperson of Brintons Ltd, September 2004
25 Labour Research June 2002
26 Forbo Nairn company website, viewed in September 2004
27 ENDS, February 2000 28 Egger website, viewed September 2004
29 Egger environment policy, viewed on company website september 2004
30 Galloway Timbers website, viewed September 2004
31 Elesgo website, September 2004
32 e mail from Karndean 23rd August 2004
33 Kronospan Environment report 12th May 2003
34 ENDS January 2002 35 ENDS August 2002
36 Natural Wood Company's website, Sept 04
37 Pergo Annual Report, 2003
38 Tarkett website, Sept 2004