Eco-Wallcoverings: Natural, Healthy Alternatives to Vinyl

Wood pulp and other natural fibers give walls a more natural look.


Made of cotton colored with silk, mica, and glitter, JaDecor is touted for its insulation qualities.

Photography by Joe Coca

Content Tools

Until recently, one word summed up the options available in alternative wallcoverings: limited. There were natural fibers in neutral tones, plaster blends, or paint. And that was about it.

Today, eco-friendly alternatives come in an array of fiber blends and glass fibers, from recycled wood to reclaimed waste, in textures as soft as silk or hard as rock. They can be pasted up, screwed on, or troweled smooth. And—perhaps the best news of all—many boast attributes even traditional coverings can’t claim.

For decades, vinyl reigned as the wallcovering king. In every category—tearability, scrubability, washability, color fastness, shrinkage, and resistance to cold, heat, mildew, and aging—the stuff couldn’t be beat (if you didn’t mind the outgassing and knowing that vinyl production releases dioxin into the environment). In terms of durability, there was no competition.

There is now. In fact, the market for vinyl alternatives is growing so rapidly that Rudy Mayer, president of Innovations, a designer and manufacturer of quality wallcoverings, says, “In the last six months, I’ve seen a new competitor come on the market at least once a month. It’s a huge, growing segment of the market.”

What exactly are vinyl alternatives? The definition varies slightly from one manufacturer to another, but generally, vinyl alternative wallcoverings are made from wood pulp and various recycled or reclaimed materials, including nylon and polyester. They’re colored with water-based inks and manufactured in single-layer construction, which means no second layer of backing to delaminate over time.

Like vinyl, they’re easily embossed; but unlike vinyl, which is nonporous, the alternative wallcoverings readily absorb ink, giving the finished product rich saturated color. As for price, Mayer says, “They cost us less to make, and that’s because there’s very little waste. They take less time to make and less energy to manufacture.”

At Blumenthal Alternative Wallcoverings, the best-selling line of green products is Duraprene—latex-impregnated cellulose fibers made from 50 percent recycled fiber content. “It looks like handmade paper,” says Sally Ayers, Blumenthal marketing coordinator. “It’s very soft, almost a suede. Everything in the line can be cleaned with mild soap and a soft cloth. Nothing requires harsh soaps or chemicals.”

Blumenthal also offers the Enigma line, made from gypsum and quartz fibers, which boasts the same virtues as vinyl.

Prices for vinyl alternative wallcoverings run about $15 per linear yard. Bear in mind that not all vinyl alternatives are created equal—at least not from an eco-friendly point of view. Because they contain nylons and polyesters, some may outgas more than others, and some may be more recyclable than others. For detailed information on products, contact the local representative.

Natural fibers 

Papers made from natural fibers have been the mainstay in eco-friendly decor for decades. And they just keep getting better. While not as durable as vinyl alternatives, natural fiber products—sisal, cork, and grass cloth, among others—are nonetheless sturdy in their own right. But what makes these wallcoverings enduringly popular is that they come from readily renewable resources and are naturally beautiful.

“Our rice paper and parchments have such a tactile quality, you just want to touch them,” says Laura Bears, spokeswoman for Muraspec North America. “The colors are natural and of the earth, and that just really brings a soothing quality to decorative ideas.”

Muraspec’s rice paper is made from 100 percent linen fiber, while the parchment paper is a blend of mulberry bark and linen. “They have a bit of a sheen to them,” Bears says. “They almost glow.”

Rice and parchment papers aren’t scrubable, Bears says, but they can be cleaned with warm water and are durable enough for most rooms except the kitchen, where they might be more easily stained from cooking splashes and spills.

Others to consider: Blumenthal’s grass cloth and woven reed papers, offered in a palette of nature-inspired hues, and Innovations’ cork wallcovering, harvested from the bark of cork trees and available in eight colors. Innovations also offers sisal wallcoverings in a range of colors, both bright and natural. Sisal is known for its durability and sound absorption.

Prices for natural fiber products range broadly. Innovations’ grass cloth sells for $40 per linear yard; cork and sisal are priced at $29.95 per linear yard.

Another natural fiber alternative is JaDecor, created thirty years ago by German artist Elfrieda Horatsch. Functional, elegant, and eco-friendly, JaDecor is made of cotton colored with silk, mica, and glitter. Troweled onto the wall in a seamless application, JaDecor is also touted for its noise reduction and insulation qualities. “It will change the way a room looks and feels,” says JaDecor spokesman Tim Bell.

JaDecor comes in 50 standard designs, which can be mixed and enhanced by 60 special effect materials and 400 shades of embroidery floss to create an almost endless palette of patterns and colors. “It’s limited,” says Bell, “only by your imagination.”

The product, which must be installed by certified professionals, is repairable, doesn’t easily fade, won’t mold, and, Bell says, will outlast most any other traditional wallcoverings. Installers use an oil-based primer on the wall before applying the wallcovering, but Bell says a water-based primer has been developed and is available on request.

Introduced in Portland, Oregon, in 1991, JaDecor has won high marks from the Baubiologie Institute in Germany. The cost is $4 to $6 per square foot installed.

Glass and stone 

For something completely different, consider Muraspec’s blends fiber wall-covering. If you can imagine throwing specks of color at a wall of wet paint, you have a pretty good picture of what this wallcovering is all about. The product consists of a glass fiber backing colored with flakes made of calcium carbonate (one of the ingredients in toothpaste) with polyvinyl acetate binders (also used as the coating on cheese), and nontoxic pigments. The result, says Bears, is a wallcovering free of heavy metals and formaldehyde—and it's practical, as well. “It’s highly durable,” Bears says. “It’s also breathable. The microscopic holes inherent in glass fiber allow water to pass through. The permeability makes it great for high moisture areas.”

Or consider Green Stone, a decorative finish made up of molded stone composed of natural minerals and between 10 and 75 percent recycled material, depending on design criteria. Green Stone is available in more than a dozen formulations as well as customized designs. “It’s meant to look like stacked stone,” says Clayton Sembler, president of CDS Manufacturing, which makes Green Stone. “It comes in any color you want, and we can make it as soft as chalk or as hard as concrete. There are no negative or harmful side effects. No outgassing, no carcinogens... and it has the best fire rating you can get. It doesn’t burn, and it doesn’t smoke.”

While Green Stone has been marketed primarily to commercial customers, Sembler says homeowners use it for porches, foyers, patios, decorative columns, and around pools. It sells for $6 to $10 per square foot, depending on volume.

Wood veneer 

Wood that’s not considered good enough for fine veneer often winds up in the waste pile. But now, thanks to a new patented technology, what was once waste wood can become an attractive, resource-friendly veneer.

Muraspec fiddleback wood veneer is produced from scrap and selected trees from managed forests and enhanced to create a new pattern. “They actually take the fibers and move them around to create the fiddleback character,” says Bears. “They can take a log that may not be a high enough standard for a wallcovering veneer and make a piece of wallcovering that is gorgeous, and they’re not wasting the wood. It goes up like wallcovering, with clay-based adhesives. It’s very durable and easily cleanable. You treat it like any fine piece of furniture in your home.” This wallcovering option is sold via local distributors, so prices will vary. “But,” says Bears, “it’s competitive with other fine wood wallcovering products.”