Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans
Alternative Fibers make Healthier Carpets
Is there such a thing as “green” carpet? There’s some debate about what constitutes a green carpet, and though carpeting can be made from a variety of eco-friendly resources, it’s commonly regarded as problematic for indoor air quality. That assessment isn’t universally true, however, even among carpets of the same material.
Ultimately, the variety in fibers available rules out the possibility of a universal judgment, and even the most chemically sensitive of homeowners seeking to create a green home should be able to find a carpet that works for their standards of sustainability and purity from harmful toxins. As with any other type of flooring, the decision will have a subtle but strong impact on every step you take, and can be the difference in making a house a home.
Conventional Carpeting Material
Carpeting already accounts for 70% of floor coverings in the United States, with the majority of carpet materials being unsustainable as well as unsuited to the health of the people who live with them. Standard carpet is made of nylon, acrylic, polypropylene, or polyester, and is frequently backed with synthetic SB latex, polyurethane, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC)—all of which are petroleum products. SB latex, which is used on at least 90% of carpet, contains the toxin styrene and is a suspected carcinogen. PVC is the subject of a health controversy that resulted in several of its components being banned from children’s toys in Europe. Synthetic carpets of all kinds are known to off-gas dozens of chemicals, not only from the materials themselves but also from the heavy chemical treatments that they receive, including dye, stain-proofing, fungicide, antistatic, and fire retardant. SB latex, which is used on at least 90% of carpet, contains the toxin styrene—a suspected carcinogen.
Installation is another area of great concern with respect to the use of VOC-containing adhesives. Currently, the closest thing to an industry standard of health is the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus program, which periodically measures for selected VOCs. Another way to make standard carpet greener is to use modular carpet tiles, which can be replaced one by one if damaged instead of ruining the entire piece. Although preferable to carpet produced with little or no environmental forethought at all, the non-renewability of the resource and energy of production still pose pressing environmental problems. Additionally, worries remain that carpet fibers provide a breeding ground for mildew, allergens, and airborne toxins. Synthetic carpets, which tend to age badly and do not decompose, are generally disposed of in landfills, where they occupy a large amount of space.
Eco-Friendly Carpeting Material Alternatives
However, eco-friendly alternatives to standard carpeting do exist–recycled-content carpet is beginning to make an appearance. This green carpet option uses a variety of materials, including plastic soda bottles, nylon, cotton, wool, or even used carpet. Some recycled-content carpet can even be reclaimed at the end of its lifecycle by the manufacturer, who will recycle it again, transforming a non-renewable substance into a renewed material.
Carpet pad made from recycled nylon carpets is also available. If these eco-friendly materials are tacked down instead of glued, the carpet installation process is considerably greener, while the carpet retains its look and its soft, sound-absorbing qualities.
Another, more traditional sustainable carpeting is wool, which has the large advantage over synthetics because it’s made from a renewable and biodegradable resource: the cut hair of sheep or llamas that depend on the grass of New Zealand hills instead of the oils of the Middle East. Actually, sheep raised for the purposes of yielding carpet fibers are raised in several countries, though rarely in the United States. The shipping distance involved requires considerable use of energy, as does the resource-hungry process of animal agriculture. On a purely tactile level, wool is often thought of as superior to synthetics for its richness of texture, durability, and natural crimp, which preserves the springy quality of plush carpet.
Wool is also resistant to soiling, moisture, static, and fire, and has been shown to be less hospitable to dust mites than synthetic fibers, while trapping pollutants and keeping them out of the air for decades. The most popular criticism is the moth-proofing chemical treatment that most wool carpeting receives that results in some VOC off-gassing. However, untreated wool carpet is available in the U.S. from at least two purveyors. This environmentally friendly product also uses jute backing instead of polypropylene—as do several other wool carpet lines—and uses only natural dyes for coloring.
Wool carpet should be vacuumed frequently and kept out of wet environments that may encourage mildewing. Installed properly and cleaned with natural cleansers, wool can be eco-friendly and healthy flooring. Although it is generally more expensive than synthetic carpet, the long-lasting quality and luxurious feel of wool carpet may be well worth the cost, making it an investment rather than an extravagance.
Plant fibers are another sustainable flooring component that have the advantage of being VOC-free, biodegradable, and chemically untreated. The best-known of these is sisal, made from leaves of an agave plant which is grown without pesticides and harvested by hand in the deserts of Latin America and Africa. Although the production of sisal is thought to be less efficient than it could be, as a flooring it is more green than most. The hard, thin, woven fiber provides a durable, easy-to-care-for surface with a texturally unique feel; it doesn’t capture mites or allergens, and like other carpets, it is antistatic and sound absorbent.
Seagrass is another sustainable option, being a thicker fiber grown underwater in Asia and woven into tough carpets backed with latex or urethane. Because it doesn’t hold dye, the green-brown color of seagrass ties it to its natural source, and it’s also very easy to care for.
There are many plant and reed fibers from which to choose, though sisal and seagrass are the most widely available. Jute is a softer fiber that appears almost silken when woven, but requires more maintenance. Abaca, from a cousin of the banana plant, has gorgeous hair-like fibers in thick knots. Coir, from coconut fiber, can be used in- and outdoors and provides a sustainable alternative to synthetic welcome mats.
Synthetic carpets, which tend to age badly and do not decompose, are generally disposed of in landfills, where they occupy a large amount of space. As a whole, the materials mentioned above are made from renewable resources, are healthy for indoor air quality, and have stimulating textures that provide a far different feel than that offered by traditional flooring. When purchasing of any of these products, it is still important to consider:
- The eco-friendliness of backing material
- The sustainability of the constituent material—how it’s harvested
- The energy involved in farming production and shipping distance