Soft floor coverings help to warm our rooms and reduce energy bills, but this doesn't mean that all materials are eco-friendly. So if you are keen to lay an environmentally friendly carpet in your home, be sure that the material of both the surface covering and any underfelt or padding used really is "green".
There is a huge selection of different soft flooring products to choose from, some of which are more hardwearing than others – and some of which are less environmentally friendly than others. Available materials include acrylic fiber, tough polyester and polypropylene (which are both petroleum-based products), nylon (which may be recycled nylon), coir, sea grass, jute, hemp, abaca, sisal and natural wool.
There is also a choice between wall-to-wall carpeting and area carpets and rugs. The former is commonly laid on a screeded concrete floor, usually on nice thick underfelt which increases insulation properties. The latter may be used decoratively over wall-to-wall carpeting or used on wooden or tiled floors for warmth and comfort.
Fibers used to make carpeting
There are four basic fiber types that are used to make the majority of carpets worldwide, although often blends are used. These are listed and described in Shaw Floors' website, www.shawfloors.com, namely:
- nylon, which is the most expensive synthetic carpet fiber used,
- polypropylene (Olefin), which is generally less resilient than other fibers both natural and synethetic,
- polyester, which is softer than polypropylene and cheaper than nylon, and
- wool, which is undoubtedly the most popular natural fiber used to make carpets and rugs.
Headquartered in Georgia, Shaw Floors uses wool for its carpets and area rugs, but not the other natural fibers mentioned here.
When we talk about carpets being eco-friendly, we generally mean that they are made using sustainable materials that do not harm the environment. This relates partly to the manufacture of carpeting, but also to lifespan. For example, it's all very well to choose the cheapest products on the market, but if they don't last very long, aren't biodegradable and can't be recycled, the carpets or rugs will invariably end up in landfills, which is something people worldwide are trying to minimize. A top quality product will last for decades, although it too may well end up in a landfill. Conversely, eco-friendly options include biodegradable carpets as well as those that can be recycled in some way.
When it comes to eco-friendly options, it isn't just the environment we are concerned with. The term environmentally friendly carpet also implies that it is human and pet-friendly. It is widely believed that carpeting can cause allergies and promote asthma in people and a similar wheeziness in animals. This makes it potentially non eco-friendly. However information on the Shaw Floors' web site challenges this belief, quoting various studies that say carpet-caused asthma and allergies are a myth. They also emphasize the importance of regular vacuuming and periodic steam cleaning which will remove allergens and get rid of dust mites.
It certainly stands to reason that irrespective of what they are made of, if carpets aren't kept clean, they can easily become a source of allergies.
Another aspect to consider is that if carpets are made or laid using toxic adhesives (those containing formaldehyde for example) they can also result in poor indoor air quality until all the gases have been released after installation.
Renewable resources for eco-friendly carpets
Earth Weave Carpet Mills, Inc (www.earthweave.com) is a North American company that uses renewable resources for all their floor covering products. They steadfastly avoid using any products that are sourced from non-renewable products and only use 100% natural products. They were also the first company to use industrial hemp in the carpet industry.
All Earth Weave's Bio-Floor products are made from undyed, untreated wool, hemp, cotton and jute. The surface you walk on is the natural chemical-free wool. Directly beneath the wood there is a hemp and cotton backing, and beneath that another backing made from jute. A natural adhesive from the rubber tree is used to glue the layers together.
Earth Weave also manufactures 100% natural padding for area rugs and carpets. Rugs placed over potentially slippery tiles benefit from natural rug pads that are totally non-skid. A wool-based padding is preferred under wall-to-wall carpeting.
Merida (www.meridameridian.com) is an established North American company that manufactures high quality floor rugs primarily from renewable plants like sisal, jute, seagrass, coir and abaca, a tough fiber commonly called Manila hemp, but which in fact comes from Musa textilis, a species of banana indigenous to the Philippines. All grow rapidly so can be harvested again within 10 years. The company also uses some paper and New Zealand wool, and they back rugs with natural latex that is derived from rubber trees.
Traditionally – in the good old days before people realized the vital importance of going green – carpets were made using petrochemical products that were non-renewable. They also frequently contained volatile organic compounds (VOC). Happily times are changing and biodegradable products on the increase.
Natural-fiber matting tops the list of biodegradable carpet because it is both remarkably sustainable in terms of production, and is completely biodegradable.
Because only natural fibers are used for Earth Weave products, their carpeting is said to be totally biodegradable. The manufacturers say that if you cut it up and chuck it into your garden, it'll biodegrade naturally to form an effective mulch and weed barrier.
Like Earth Weave products, Merida's rugs without the latex backing may also be chopped up for mulch.
Carpeting that can be recycled
Admittedly there are not many options that can be recycled, but they do exist. The California-based carpet company, Interface (www.interfaceglobal.com), is an international leader in this field. The company's FLOR products are not only manufactured in sustainably-focused facilities utilizing increasing quantities of recycled and renewable raw materials, but it also has a return and recycle program. So when your carpet tiles, rugs or runners get tired and worn, and you want a change, you simply return the old tiles and the company will recycle them into new products.
InterfaceFLOR is also the first commercial carpet manufacturer that recovers nylon 6,6 for recycling into new nylon 6,6. The result, Convert, is described as InterfaceFLOR's "groundbreaking new platform for modular carpeting". Apart from the recyclable quality, it is made in the full spectrum of colors and styles that offer the opportunity for consumers to rearrange them when they want to change the look without discarding the carpeting. Simply lift the tiles, reorganize and you have a new pattern and a new look.
Save energy with environmentally friendly carpet products
There is absolutely no doubt that carpeting can lower your energy bills because its insulation properties are hugely better than most other types of flooring. That's probably why our pets love curling up and sleeping on carpets!
The way it works is simply that some of the air circulating in the room is trapped by the carpet fibers – the insulating material – and so the carpet feels warmer to the touch. Carpet also has a lower thermal diffusivity than other floor materials, so it doesn't conduct heat away from the body as quickly.
Insulation is further improved if you also have padding installed as an underlay.