Few places in your home have a bigger impact on your family’s health and planetary footprint than your floors. Green, nontoxic choices are both abundant and diverse, and they come in a wide range of styles. Options such as wood, tile, bamboo and cork offer choices suitable for every budget.
Made primarily from linseed oil, wood flour and natural jute, natural linoleum has antibacterial properties that help fight common allergens. Forbo’s Marmoleum brand comes in hundreds of colors obtained from environmentally friendly pigments, and numerous designs and textures. It’s easy to care for, durable and biodegradable.
Marmoleum comes in both sheets and tiles. Sheets are more difficult to install, and installation can often cost more than the material itself, says Natalie Freidberg, a Los Angeles-based green building consultant. “The tiles are easier to install, and it’s a floating floor so it doesn’t need to be nailed or glued,” she says. “They just snap together.”
Natural linoleum is not waterproof, but it can be made more water-resistant by sealing the edges and coating the floor.
The good news is that bamboo is hard, rapidly renewable, fairly inexpensive and lowmaintenance. The bad news? The material has become so popular it’s being overharvested and overplanted, and because it’s so lucrative, some companies are cutting down forests to plant more bamboo.
Shop carefully, Freidberg warns, to make sure you’re not buying a product made with formaldehyde in the glue. Ask for a third-party certification from the flooring manufacturer. Remember: If it is so cheap it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Try well-respected brands such as Teragren, EcoTimber and Plyboo.
“Also, make sure the individual floor boards have slightly beveled edges—just a millimeter or so will do—because if not, it can be incredibly sharp,” Freidberg says.
Tiles made from recycled porcelain, concrete or glass are durable, low-maintenance and generally have low carbon footprints. Plus, its unique appearance can’t be replicated with any other material, Freidberg says.
However, tile tends to be among the most expensive flooring options, and it can be cold and hard to stand on for long periods.
The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent certifier that ensures wood is grown sustainably. This means the trees grow fast and are harvested using a picker instead of clear-cutting. American sustainably grown wood has a low carbon footprint and is available from numerous sources, but it costs more than noncertified wood.
Reclaimed wood flooring is the most environmentally friendly flooring option, Freidberg says. Salvaged and remilled wood has a low carbon footprint and a one-of-a-kind look. “It has a lot of character, sometimes with nail holes and cracks,” Freidberg says. “The flaws are a big part of it, but part of the beauty, also, is that you can get widths of planks you can’t get with new wood. Sometimes the grain is just spectacular—and you can’t get that with the younger trees.”
Look for local companies that specialize in deconstruction. Freidberg works with Douglas fir that was used in downtown Los Angeles buildings built 80 to 100 years ago. Barns, factories and mills are also great sources for old wood.
Installation—probably not a DIY project—calls for a solid understanding of wood and its knots and cracks. The finishing process is more complicated than the process for traditional wood, and it usually requires sanding.
Cost can range widely, so do your homework to find a variety of local sources. Ask where the wood is from. Reclaimed exotic wood may also be available from buildings in your area, though it’s likely to cost more.
Cork comes from the outer layer of the cork oak Quercus tree, which grows back after it’s harvested. Available in a wide variety of colors and designs, cork is very comfortable underfoot. “If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen, it is great. It cushions your legs,” Freidberg says. She also loves its resilience. “You can stand on it in high heels and make a dent, and in 24 hours the dent will be gone.”
Research the source of a product’s cork before buying. Cork has become so popular that centuries-old cork groves in Spain and Portugal are being overtaxed. Freidberg warns to steer clear of cheap cork, which can be made with toxic, formaldehydebased glue.
• Don’t buy cheap cork or bamboo flooring—both are made with formaldehyde-laced binders. Do consider using reclaimed wood
flooring. It’s one of the greenest options and offers a one-of-a-kind look.
• Make sure your installer uses putties, glues and sealants that do not outgas.
• Ask a green building consultant or retailer to recommend products certified for indoor air quality by an independent agency such as GreenGuard.
• Avoid oil-based products, which are generally more toxic than water-based products, and try to avoid acrylics.
Flooring Fact Sheet
||Low carbon footprint; aged look; available in wider planks and unique grain patterns; wide range of prices
||Difficult to install; finishing process can be complicated
|certified sustainably grown and harvested wood
||Low carbon footprint; rapidly renewable
||Higher priced than noncertified wood
||Comes in a wide range of colors, designs and textures; very low-maintenance; durable (especially the sheet version); biodegradable
||Installation can be expensive and difficult (if using sheets); fairly water-resistant, but not waterproof
||Very comfortable; warm; resilient; available in multiple
colors and designs, in rolls, tiles or floating floor planks
|Most made in Europe, so carbon footprint is higher; will swell if wet; needs to be sealed
||Generally a low carbon footprint if made from recycled
products; very durable; low-maintenance
|Tile and installation can be pricey; cold and
||Very hard; rapidly renewable; fairly inexpensive; low-maintenance
||Many options unsustainable; can be uncomfortable on back, knees and feet
Ambient Bamboo Floors
natural linoleum flooring
Goodwin Heart Pine
Sandhill Glass Tile
recycled glass tile
FSC-certified reclaimed flooring
Lori Tobias, a staff writer for The Oregonian, has written for Natural Home for nearly a decade.