Your choice of flooring can reflect both your style and your convictions, defining the personality of your entire house. Today’s beautiful, environmentally friendly alternatives—including bamboo, reclaimed or sustainably harvested wood, cork and natural linoleum—make it easy to find a floor that suits your needs.
You can use nontoxic installation methods for these floors, too. Nail down bamboo and wood, or install any of these options as “floating” floors—meaning they’re not glued or nailed down but “float” atop subfloors so they can accommodate the room’s humidity changes.
If you elect to use an adhesive, look for a less toxic, water-based version with low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions. And make sure to read the directions to ensure that the adhesive works on your product and in your climate.
Bamboo: Grows like a weed
Bamboo looks so graceful and willowy it’s hard to believe that some varieties are tougher than hardwoods. Bamboo looks a lot like hardwood; but while trees take decades to replenish, bamboo is a quick-growing grass—some species shoot up three feet a day. The downside? Most is imported from Asia, although U.S. sources are emerging as bamboo’s popularity grows.
To make bamboo into flooring, producers cut the plant into strips, boil it to eliminate sugars and insects, and often dry it in a kiln. Then they glue the strips together to make a solid surface. Some manufacturers degrade the sustainability of their bamboo by using adhesives with toxic urea-formaldehyde. The less expensive the bamboo, the more likely it is to have a high formaldehyde content. Always ask the manufacturer or distributor whether formaldehyde is used—or check the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which manufacturers are required by law to provide, and which is often available online. Some distributors offer floors made completely without formaldehyde; other companies comply with Europe’s E1 standard, which limits formaldehyde concentrations to 0.1 parts per million (ppm).
Saving forests: Reclaimed and sustainable wood
If you want hardwood, look for salvaged wood flooring or flooring certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
In recent years, people have sought reclaimed old wood—often from salvaged buildings or standing dead trees—for flooring with history and character. Old wood tends to be irregularly sized in wide planks with nail holes and knots.
You can find recycled-wood floors at salvage stores, including Habitat for Humanity ReStores, where people donate old demolition materials. Locate wood from barn teardowns in newspaper classified sections or from companies such as Aged Woods, which specializes in recycled, remilled woods from barns and warehouses. Locally sourced salvaged wood eliminates transportation costs and energy.
Removing nails from and refinishing salvaged wood yourself is cheaper, but requires more time. If you’d rather pay a professional to do the work, try buying prefinished flooring from a company that specializes in refurbishing old wood.
If you’re going for new wood flooring, make sure it’s certified by the FSC, a third-party agency that ensures eco-friendly standards are met. FSC flooring often costs a bit more per square foot, but you can find it for prices comparable to conventional.
Put a cork on it
Cork flooring is warm, soft and resilient underfoot, and it holds heat and dampens sound better than wood, bamboo or linoleum. Cork resists mold and mildew growth and is fire retardant.
It takes the Mediterranean cork oak tree about 25 years to mature enough for its first cork bark harvest; a mature cork oak regenerates its bark in about 10 years. Because cork oak takes time to grow and cork trees are becoming scarce, demand recently has begun to outstrip supply. Some cork flooring is made from wine cork remnants.
Chemical treatments are necessary to create a hard surface, but green options are available. Avoid formaldehyde binders, PVC laminates and cork blended with synthetic rubber, and opt for low-VOC polyurethane or beeswax-base finishes.
Most resilient flooring, mistakenly called “linoleum,” is actually toxic, environmentally disastrous vinyl flooring. True natural linoleum—made with linseed oil, tree resin and a combination of ingredients such as cork, sawdust and limestone with a jute or hemp backing—is a durable, biodegradable, antimicrobial, low-cost flooring alternative.
Linoleum’s linoleic acid (from the linseed oil) outgases some VOCs, which may exacerbate health problems if you’re chemically sensitive.
To install, choose an adhesive that’s low in VOCs, water based and formaldehyde free. Heating linoleum tiles so the seams adhere to one another is also an option; however, outgasing from this procedure could create skin and eye irritants.
Easy Refinishing for Hardwood Floors
Sealants and other toxic chemicals emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that poison indoor air.
Sanding old, oil-based varnishes releases toxins into the air. If you’re sanding the floor yourself, rent a dust-free sander such as the BonaKemi atomic dust containment system. Or hire a professional who uses dust-free equipment that vents to an outdoor collection unit.
If you can’t find a dust-free system or floor refinisher, cover openings with plastic to contain dust. Use a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuum to clean up.
Choose low-VOC stains, finishes, sealants and caulks. (For contents and health effects of finishes, obtain the MSDS from the manufacturer; most are posted on manufacturers’ websites.) Avoid fungicides, biocides and high levels of VOCs. Look for Pure Tung Oil, OS Hardwax Oil, and products by BioShield, Tried And True and AFM Safecoat.
Down to Earth Talk about Floors
Pros: durable; easily replenished resource; not made from the species that endangered giant pandas eat; relatively low cost (around $3.50 to $6 per square foot)
Cons: may contain formaldehyde; may be treated with fungicides or pesticides; most is imported from Asia; can warp or weaken in high-moisture areas; best not used in bathrooms, laundry areas or mudrooms; some varieties prone to scratching
Pros: supports good forestry practices; encourages local economies that use sustainable forestry; beautiful and sturdy
Cons: tropical woods shipped long distances; more expensive than non-certified woods
Pros: reuse is most environmentally friendly option; can be acquired locally; inexpensive if purchased from an individual, through www.OldBarnWoodSite.com or from Habitat for Humanity; historic look adds character and beauty
Cons: requires a lot of work if unfinished; irregular sizes more difficult to install; can be expensive, depending on source ($6 to $12 per square foot depending on width and type of wood)
Pros: a naturally sourced, renewable resource; excellent thermal and acoustic properties; bounces back from dents and gouges; can be installed by homeowners (tiles)
Cons: imported from the Mediterranean; requires adhesives; choose less toxic varieties; can be expensive ($5 to $8.50 per square foot for tiles or floating floors)
Pros: easy to maintain; hides wear and tear; uses natural, renewable resources; comes in many colors and styles for interesting designs; relatively low cost ($3.50 to $5.25 per square foot); biodegradable
Cons: linseed oil outgases VOCs.; requires adhesives to install; conventional ones are toxic; most brands imported from Europe
Smith & Fong
FSC and reclaimed wood
Endura Wood Products
FSC and reclaimed wood
Pelican Teak Products