Eco-friendly Flooring (part 1)

Why to buy bamboo, cork and sustainable hardwood floors.

Bamboo? Wood? Carpet? What to choose? With home renovation season just around the corner, many Canadians are searching for a greener choice for their floors. But what products are out there, what’s truly green, and which one’s right for you?

Endless options

Catherine Bottoni, manager at Toronto’s Green Design Studio, has noticed a rapid increase in customers requesting environmentally conscious flooring. Luckily, as customer demand has grown, so too have the options; there’s now a huge array of eco-friendly alternatives to the conventional floors you may already have underfoot.

Whatever style or room you’re looking to satisfy, there’s sure to be a healthier and more sustainable choice, which doesn’t sacrifice durability, fashion or quality. In fact, says Bottoni, “Although customers are sometimes concerned about the durability of eco-floors, since they lack chemicals, the durability is most definitely there.” Today’s eco-friendly floors last decades, she adds, and use non-toxic sealants to extend their lifespan.  

In terms of price, eco-friendly floors can cost up to 20 percent more than conventional ones. But this premium might be less; it all depends on quality, certification, and the type of store you shop at. For many consumers, the health and environmental benefits of greener flooring are worth a few extra dollars per square meter.

Want wood?

There’s something about that naturally elegant look that keeps many of us choosing hardwood. Fortunately, there are a few ways to satisfy your conscience.

Reclaimed and salvaged wood is one green way to bring hardwood into your home, while preventing any virgin trees from being chopped down. This type of flooring will also instantly add character to your home. Having potentially come from an old barn, railroad ties, or the floor of a century home, your hardwood will tell a unique story. Try Canadian Heritage Timber, Logs End, Second Wind Timber, or Nostalgic Wood to start your search for Canadian reclaimed wood floors.

If you prefer brand new hardwood, the key is to look for local wood, that’s also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This ensures that the product was sustainably harvested from a well-managed forest. Vice-president of FSC Canada, Maia Becker, believes that local, responsibly harvested wood can actually be a very green flooring option. The FSC also certifies post-consumer recycled wood. Visit their Find Wood Products page to find FSC-certified hardwood suppliers across the country.

Refinishing your existing wood floor is another very eco-friendly option, if it’s done with a non-toxic varnish. Refinishing requires no new wood or subflooring, no transportation, and very little energy.

Choose certified bamboo

That gorgeous hardwood look can also be recreated with bamboo flooring. This sturdy grass has exploded in popularity as an alternative to harvesting trees due to its rapid renewal rate. Bamboo is considered a highly sustainable resource since it can regrow in only three years (and doesn’t need to be replanted), whereas a tree will take from 10 to 60 years to grow again.

However, the demand for bamboo has grown so rapidly that regulators haven’t yet caught up to industry, and only a limited number of certifications exist to assure quality and that safe environmental practices are behind its production. Further, Becker says that “the bamboo market doesn’t always address where bamboo is coming from and what it has replaced… Often, ecologically diverse forests are being cleared for bamboo plantations.” Bamboo’s far-away habitat also presents some cause for concern because of the fuel demands of shipping it to North America.

The best option for Canadian consumers is to look for bamboo flooring certified by FSC. (So far there’s just one, Plyboo.) But says Becker, “Customers should keep asking for certified bamboo because, through market demand, producers will be encouraged to become certified.”

Cork beneath your feet

Cork is another great alternative to wood, has similar colouring and a natural look, and is one of the most sustainable and renewable flooring options out there. Only the bark is hand-harvested from mature cork trees, so no trees are cut down in the process. And the bark can regenerate at least once per decade. Bottoni, of Green Design Studio, says that cork’s attractive properties (insulation, cushioning, and warmth), combined with its green credentials, make it a very eco-friendly flooring choice. Cork can be installed wherever you’d use wood—even in kitchens. Although some cork products (such as wine stoppers) are certified, there’s currently no FSC-certified cork flooring. Furthermore, most cork is transported from Spain or Portugal.

Sticky Business: finishes and adhesives

It’s important to consider the glues, varnishes and sealants involved with wood-style floors. The glues used in cork flooring, for example, may contain formaldehyde.  Bamboo has also come under fire for being overly processed or using formaldehyde-laden glues. Environmental Defence warns that formaldehyde can trigger allergies or asthma attacks and is even linked to cancer. Thankfully, many cork and bamboo floors now on the market use formaldehyde-free glues. And, as a rule of thumb, the fewer adhesives required the better. Hardwood is usually free of toxic adhesives because of its tongue-and-groove (read: glueless) installation. In fact, this tongue-and-groove installation is recommended whenever possible for all types of flooring.

Next time…

Stay tuned for more on eco-flooring, such as carpets and other groundcovers. We’ll also examine the common health concerns associated with conventional flooring—yet another great reason to tread on greener options.