Natural Carpet: Eco-Friendly Flooring

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InterfaceFlor’s Spring Planting carpet, made from corn leaves and stalks, is compostable.
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Made from woody bark, jute carpet has an appealing texture.
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Seagrass—grown near the sea in China—makes sturdy carpet.
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Earth Weave Carpet Mills’ 100 percent natural wool is completely biodegradable.
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InterfaceFlor’s Spring Planting carpet, made from corn leaves and stalks, is compostable.
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InterfaceFlor’s Spring Planting carpet, made from corn leaves and stalks, is compostable.

Here are solutions to conventional toxic carpeting that won’t trip you up.

Americans love wall-to-wall carpet. More than two-thirds of all floors have it, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute. And why not? Carpet comes in every color, texture, and design imaginable, with prices to fit most any budget. It takes the chill out of cold floors, softens hard surfaces, and quiets the home environment. For the elderly, it provides a safe, nonslip surface.

However, underneath carpet’s warm, fuzzy surface lie a few prickly issues. Almost all is made from petroleum byproducts and synthetics such as polypropylene (olefin), nylon, and acrylic. Most are treated with stain or soil repellents. The backing might be vinyl or synthetic latex, and the padding may also contain PVC, urethane, and other suspect materials. Then there are antistatic sprays, artificial dyes, antimicrobial treatments, and finishes. Carpet–both new installations and old–has been suspect for years as a cause of sick building syndrome (SBS) and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). Some of the substances formerly common in carpet are known neurotoxins. It’s enough to pull the rug out from under you. Does this mean you have to bag carpet? Not if you choose a less chemically laden path.

Strides have been made to eliminate problematic compounds underfoot and to improve indoor air quality polluted by outgasing from traditional carpet. In 2004, the Carpet and Rug Institute unveiled its Green Label Plus program, an improvement upon the 1992 Green Label initiative, which tags carpet products that adhere to rigid requirements for low-VOC outgasing. All carpets with Green Label Plus certification have passed independent laboratory tests for emissions from thirteen notorious chemicals: acetaldehyde, benzene, caprolactam, 2-ethylhexanoic acid, formaldehyde, 1-methyl-2-pyrrolidinone, naphthalene, nonanal, octanal, 4-phenylcyclohexene, styrene, toluene, and vinyl acetate. The initiative is voluntary, although some states, including California, require that new carpet in public places such as schools meet the standards.

Wall-to-wall wool

Natural options in conventional carpeting exist. Wool is by far the most popular option, but buyer beware: A product labeled “100 percent wool” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 100 percent free of the toxins above. Most carpet manufacturers chemically treat the wool fibers, use dyes, or rely on synthetic backing, so you should inquire about the content and demand specific answers. If the seller doesn’t know whether it’s all natural, it isn’t. Earth Weave’s Bio-Floor line is 100 percent natural and free of harmful chemicals.

Still, wool is the number one choice of consumers who want durability, warmth, and color and design options (or no dye at all). It’s been tried and tested as a floor covering for centuries. There are a few drawbacks, however. Although the natural oils in wool repel liquids upon contact, once moisture has soaked in it takes awhile to dry. Mold and mildew may grow, so wool is a poor choice for kitchens, baths, entryways, and other humid environments.

Hemp and sisal carpet

Hemp, which is often incorporated into natural backing and is common in bathmats or doormats, is yet to be widely sold as wall-to-wall carpet because the plant can’t be grown in the United States. The fiber is very resistant to mold and mildew, but it’s not as resilient as wool, so hemp wouldn’t be a first choice for a high-traffic area.

Sisal, seagrass, jute, and coir (coconut-husk fiber) are even less commonly used in carpet, but they’re often found in natural rugs. Sisal is the most widely available, but it may feel too scratchy on bare feet for some folks.

Tips for evaluating natural carpet

• Inquire about carpet backing. Don’t forget to find out about what’s under the rug: Backing makes up at least half of many carpets’ weight. Hemp, jute, cotton, and natural rubber (latex) are used in backings for natural carpets and rugs. The conventional carpet industry prefers synthetics, but manufacturers such as the Shaw company have denounced polyvinyl chloride (PVC) altogether because of its toxic track record, and others will certainly follow.

• Measure carefully to avoid waste, or buy carpet tiles. InterfaceFLOR sells two natural versions of carpet tiles (Au Naturel and Spring Planting) that pop out for easy replacement or cleaning. They don’t use adhesives but have tacky stickers on the back instead.

• Purchase a pad that’s compatible with your carpet. Vinyl and PVC products should be avoided in favor of jute, camel hair, mohair, and wool. All-natural padding costs an additional $6 to $10 per square yard. Another option is the less expensive recycled-fiber pad. Made from textile mill scraps, it’s mostly synthetic and may be of uncertain content, but it reduces waste and is cheaper ($2 to $5 a square yard). Buy the best pad you can afford; scrimping on it will cause your carpet to wear out more quickly, and it won’t be as cushy underneath.

And last, once you’ve purchased new carpet, regular care will preserve its good looks, add to the lifespan, and reduce problems from allergens and airborne particles. Vacuum weekly with a HEPA filtration vacuum, and be sure the bag and canister aren’t full for proper suction.

Installing carpet

Once you’ve selected your carpet, the installation is best left to a professional. Carpet is heavy and requires careful measuring, tacking, and stretching to prevent ripples and uneven places on your floor. Choose a company familiar with natural materials and willing to work with your choices, then follow these tips.

• Ask the installer to air the carpet before putting it in the house.

• Vacuum older carpet before removal and clean the floor surface before installation.

• Avoid adhesives wherever possible and use tack strips.

• Do the job in mild weather when the windows can be opened.

• Stay out of your home for a few days until the dust and other materials have aired out or settled.

• Vacuum the new carpet after installation.

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