Healthy Carpet, Healthy Home
Quick, look down at the floor. Do you see carpet? No matter how beautiful that cushy floor covering is, it hides an ugly secret: it’s made from oil, and each year billions of pounds of carpet are dumped in landfills. Carpet can also harm your indoor air quality and the overall health of your home, as it traps dust and chemicals tracked in from outside and releases the toxic chemicals that new carpeting is often treated with.
Luckily for conscious consumers, eco-friendly options are growing. Bonnie Feltz, co-owner of interior design firm Department of Interiors, Ltd. in Eau Claire, is an eco-flooring expert. As a designer, Feltz sees part of her role as educating clients on how the choices they make in their homes affect their health and the environment. Although Feltz advocates carpeting alternatives including cork and hardwoods such as hickory, oak, maple, and bamboo, she wants consumers to take the holistic view of so-called “green” flooring. “We don’t have any bamboo in Wisconsin, so we’re emitting a lot of emissions to get the bamboo here,” Feltz points out. “How green is that when it’s getting shipped across the ocean? You have to look at the whole process.” When it comes to flooring choice, it’s up to the consumer to weigh the costs and benefits of each option and select the choice that works for them.
If you’re set on installing carpeting, there are several eco-options to consider. Wool, while not made of post-consumer recycled waste and one of the most expensive options, is a top choice. It’s naturally flame resistant, cleans the air through the fiber’s inherent properties, and offers superior longevity. Another benefit to wool is that it’s free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
Manufactured carpeting choices such as nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or polyester) do have recycled content, but they also have high levels of VOCs that disperse and degrade the indoor air quality. Feltz recommends spreading the carpet out in a garage or warehouse if possible before installation to allow some of the VOCs to off-gas before the carpet comes into your home. How long should you let it off-gas? Off-gassing can happen for two to three years when the carpet is new, but Feltz acknowledges that that time frame is a tad unrealistic. “Two weeks is better than one week, a month is better than two weeks.”
PET carpet, which is made from reused materials including plastic bottles, will appeal to recycling enthusiasts. The Scientific American reports that several National Parks have installed recycled PET carpet in lobbies and report that it holds up well in high traffic areas, resisting staining and fading.
Mike and Cheryl Corneiller have been selling carpet out of their store Floors ‘n More in Eau Claire for twenty years, and they recommend SmartStrand, a sustainably sourced polymer carpet made partially from corn. Cheryl Corneiller likes to share with customers that the production of seven square yards of SmartStrand carpet purchased saves one gallon of gasoline, since it isn’t made from petroleum. Corneiller recommends the carpet to those who want carpeting that’s soft, guaranteed stain resistant, and easy to clean with just water and mild detergent. “Anybody with kids and pets,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone we’ve sold it to comes back for more.”
Feltz is especially proud of the InterfaceFlor brand of carpeting she offers to clients. NetEffect™, the brand’s line of modular recycled carpet squares made of nylon from reclaimed fishing nets and previously used carpet. The discarded fishing nets are purchased from small villages in the Philippines, providing valuable income to the fishing villages while keeping nets out of the barrier reef water. “There are a lot of nylon fishing nets rolling around in our oceans hurting a lot of wildlife, so we need to get these out of the ocean,” Feltz explained. Plus, using carpet squares instead of carpet rolls is an eco-conscious choice, as it prolongs the life of the carpet. Have a spill? Replace a square, not the whole thing.
When replacement is eventually needed, recycling the old carpet is an important step for the Earth-loving consumer. Floors ‘n More takes all the old carpet pulled up from customers’ homes and sends it to a recycling facility. Even carpet made from non-recycled material can sometimes be recycled, but it depends on the content. Before purchasing any carpet, do some research on recycling options in your area and consider if you can commit to locating and, if necessary, paying a company to recycle it after it has served its useful life. Recycling old carpet will keep it out of landfills and let it live on in new products. For example, PET carpet is recycled for use in the automotive industry, as insulation and even furniture stuffing.
Does Feltz see eco-carpeting choices growing in popularity with her clients? “I do, and I’m so pleased. I’ve been in business for twenty-nine years, and I was talking green flooring twenty-nine years ago, and people thought I was a tree hugger! Now, it’s sexy to be green.” Corneiller says very few of her customers choose a carpet solely because it’s renewably sourced or recycled, but the interest grows a little bit more each year as awareness about healthy, eco-conscious design spreads. “Your environment affects you,” says Feltz. “People just look at color and price, but design is so much more than that. It’s about creating healthy, happy environments.”