Eco Flooring

Think a greener floor means chilly stone, scratchy gray wool, and a budget in the red? Not anymore. Today's eco-flooring choices boast competitive prices, rich colors, and varied surfaces from smooth linoleum to warm cork -- and all of them spell good news for your health.

Conventional floors aren't just bad for the environment; they can pose harm to you and your family. Wall-to-wall synthetic carpet and vinyl flooring commonly used in kitchens can ramp up a room's toxicity through outgassing, a process in which adhesives and other chemicals release unhealthy vapors. Chief among these are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a broad class of chemicals that includes some linked to nausea, nerve damage, and even cancer. Ecologically, VOCs foster ground-level ozone, a culprit in global warming. Synthetic floors also draw on oil resources, and their manufacture creates dioxins -- compounds that take decades to degrade and have been linked to reproductive problems. Even wood floors can pollute indoor air when treated with toxic finishes and preservatives. And since they're often harvested faster than they regenerate, popular hardwoods compromise one of our best defenses against climate change: oxygen-producing, carbon-neutralizing forests.

Whether you're in the throes of remodeling or simply want to replace your carpet, you'll find a growing selection of healthy, sustainable materials well within reach-most at typical building-supply stores. See below for a guide to other great resources.

1. Bamboo
Best For: Bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms
Benefits: Bamboo matures in less than five years, so flooring made from this fast-growing yet durable grass cuts demand for more sensitive resources. Widely available in caramel and blond-colored planks, it can be used anywhere you might use traditional hardwoods -- and can be expected to last just as long. Note: Most bamboo is imported from Asia, so it's less than ideal for those seeking local materials. Ask retailers for formaldehyde-free adhesives to minimize fumes during installation.
Cost Per Square Foot: $4 to $8

2. Cork
Best For: Family rooms, living rooms
Benefits: Cork flooring is naturally resistant to rot and fire, and its unique cellular structure mutes sound, cushions feet, and allows fast recovery from dents caused by high heels or heavy furniture. Cork generally creates minimal manufacturing waste and is extremely durable (properly maintained floors last 40 years or more). Look for tiles or tongue-and-groove planks with low- or no-VOC sealants like carnauba wax; check out products by Expanko and other companies. Note: Standing water can damage cork, so choose alternate flooring for basements and bathrooms. A natural insulator, it should not be installed over radiant floor heating.
Cost Per Square Foot: $3 to $7

3. FSC-Certified Wood
Best For: Dining rooms, living rooms, kitchens
Benefits: Wood certified by the independent, nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council encourages ecologically and socially responsible forestry. In addition to preserving biodiversity, certification requires foresters to respect the rights of workers and indigenous communities. Note: FSC-certified companies sometimes sell noncertified wood, so ask a retailer or contractor or check lumber for the FSC logo -- a checkmark with a tree and the letters FSC.
Cost Per Square Foot: $3 to $6

4. Natural-Fiber Carpet
Best For: Bedrooms, stairs, living rooms
Benefits: Fibers such as coir, jute, and sisal offer biodegradable, nontoxic, and renewable alternatives to chemical-laden synthetic carpeting. For large areas, choose modular carpet, which helps resources go further since you can replace worn tiles in high-traffic areas while others are still in good condition. Many companies, such as Flor, take back old tiles and recycle them. When possible, select products with Green Label Plus certification from the Carpet & Rug Institute to ensure the lowest chemical emissions. Note: Carpets trap dust mites and can aggravate asthma or allergies.
Cost Per Square Foot: $4 and up

5. True Linoleum
Best For: Kitchens, bathrooms
Benefits: Vinyl imitations have come to be known as linoleum, but only true linoleum has been made from the same abundant plant-based materials (mainly linseed oil, pine resin, and powdered cork) since the 1800s. Linoleum requires minimal processing and lasts two to three times longer than vinyl -- up to 40 years. Available in sheets or tiles, its natural stain resistance allows for easy cleanup, while its antimicrobial quality obviates the need for toxic preservatives. A good bet is Marmoleum, available nationwide. Note: Linseed oil in new linoleum releases low levels of naturally occurring VOCs and a distinctive odor during curing, which may irritate people with chemical sensitivities. Both decrease significantly within days after installation.
Cost Per Square Foot: $5 to $9

Text by Josie Garthwaite; photography by Karl Juengel

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