Did you know that most mass produced carpeting is made with petroleum based fibres? Such materials consume large amounts of water and energy during production, along with the inevitable release of greenhouse gases, air pollutants and volatile organic compounds.
In the home, carpets serve to collect dust as well as chemical that make their way into the household through various means, such as fire retardants, pesticides, and heavy metals.
Just to keep allergens down to an acceptable level, you need to vacuum carpeting twice a week, and this is a recommendation coming from the carpet industry. (Tip: leaving your shoes at the door cuts down on contaminants tracked in from the outside a lot).
The impact of carpeting on the environment should also be considered. It is estimated that 2 millions tons of carpet is thrown away per year, which takes up a lot of landfill space. This is despite the recycling programs put in place by major manufacturers in recent years. Shaw, DuPont, Milliken and InterfaceFLOR all use post-consumer carpet materials in new carpeting. If you are having new carpets installed, ask your installer if they offer recycling of old carpet, or ask your municipality about carpet recycling in your area.
One option you should consider is to install carpet tiles instead of wall to wall carpeting. When the carpet becomes worn or stained and needs replacement, you only need replace a few tiles, rather than the entire carpet. This means less carpet in landfills, and less carpet manufacturing needed. It is harder to find carpet tiles that use recycled content, but they are out there if you search for them. FLOR Fedora carpet tiles, for example, use 80% recycled polyester.
Although nylon carpet is the most durable, it also is the least environmentally friendly to manufacture. On the positive side, nylon 6 and nylon 6,6 are recyclable, so if you buy carpet made from them, the environmental impact is lowered. On the negative side, recycled nylon carpet is not sold to home owners, but only is available for commercial use.
Olefin rugs, also known as polyester or polypropylene, while not quite as long lasting as nylon, are more environmentally friendly to make. Some contain recycled soda bottles, and some companies even offer carpet 100% made from post-consumer soda bottles.
Corn fibre is starting to be blended in to some carpets. It is made from corn sugar and goes by the brand name of Bio-Fibre. Although this seems to make ecological sense, I wonder if the overall economic impact makes sense.
Sure, you might save X gallons of gasoline for every Y square feet of carpet, but if the price of corn flakes goes up W% as a result, your chances of being pleased are Z%. Not only that, but few carpet companies will guarantee their corn fibre products are free of genetically modified corn.
Natural Carpet Materials
Carpet made with natural fibres is a great sustainable alternative to petroleum-based fibres. There are many to choose from. One of the least expensive and most durable of them is jute. This plant, grown in Bangladesh and India, is used to make rope, curtains, chair coverings, burlap sacks and long lasting area rugs.
Sisal is a jute-like fibre grown in Mexico, Brazil and Africa, and is used in woven area rugs. Jute and sisal are blended with other natural fibres such as hemp, abaca and coconut fibre to make woven area rugs or carpets with the right balance of low price, durability, softness and attractiveness.
Wool rugs are a staple of the carpeting industry, as they have been for hundreds of years. These make good floor coverings, but be aware of two issues.
First, make sure that the carpet you buy has not been treated with mothproofing chemicals like naphthalene, which is carcinogenic. Second, oriental rugs made in some countries are woven by child laborers. Look for the RugMark logo on a carpet tag; this certifies it as being child-labor free. You can find listings of carpet retailers who carry such rugs at the rugmark.org website.
Carpet Backing Materials
The material which makes up a carpet’s backing should also be considered, as it makes up 50% of the carpet’s weight. PVC backing should be avoided; PVC contains pthalates which can release hazardous volatile organic compounds into your indoor air. PVC also releases toxins when burned, so in a house fire it will endanger firefighting personnel. Polyurethane backing will not offgas and is an acceptable alternative to PVC backing, although it’s manufacturing process is not environmentally friendly.
Backing made from jute and wool is becoming more used, and if you can find it, should be preferred. Carpet padding should be high percentage recycled content. You can find padding and underlayment which contains from 35 to 100 percent recycled carpet waste.
High tech carpet finishes can definitely make caring for a carpet easier, but pay attention to what is in them. Stain repellants are used in all new carpeting. Scotchguard, made from fluorochemicals, was reformulated in 2002 to be less bio-accumulative. Studies showed it to be linked to liver damage in humans.
Stainmaster, another popular stain repellant added to carpets, is a Teflon-based chemical, made with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA has been linked with cancer, thyroid disease, infertility and birth defects and is due to be phased out from consumer products by 2015.
Antibacterial and microbe-repellants can also contain unsavory ingredients. For example, the popular Microban contains triclosan, which can react with the chlorine in tap water to form chloroform gas and a precursor to dioxins, 2,4-dichlorophenol.
Odor absorbants are being introduced which claim to absorb smoke, urine and fishy odors, as well as reduce volatile organic compound levels in the air. These are still new and not too much information is available, so it would probably be best to wait until more is known about them.