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Green Building Sourcebook

 Flooring and Carpets

The choice of flooring materials can have a significant environmental impact, as well as influence the level of indoor air quality for residents.


Wood is a durable, attractive option for flooring. In addition to common wood flooring options, consider using salvaged timbers, old flooring, or wood from rapidly renewable products. Unfortunately, laminated products cannot be recycled. But, in the event that you decide to use them, avoid the use of glue and adhesive, as they contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Also look for finishers, required for all wood floors, which contain minimal amounts of VOCs.

Made from the bark of cork trees, cork flooring uses a sustainable resource (removing the bark does not damage the tree). Cork flooring insulates against temperature and noise. Cork floors are durable and resilient. Because cork floors are easy to install and maintain, they are less expensive than other options.

Like cork, flooring made from bamboo stalks is an excellent renewable option because of its rapid growth rate. Bamboo can be harvested every 5 to 6 years. The stalks are then cut into strips and laminated into planks.

(sources: Sustainable Sources Sourcebook (floor coverings), Portland's Green Building Resource, Sustainable Flooring)


Natural linoleum products, made from soft wood powder, sawdust, linseed oil, pine tree resins, cork, and chalk, are great alternatives to the traditional linoleum. The cost of natural linoleum is comparable to a high quality vinyl. Because it is made from a renewable resource, natural linoleum is an environmentally friendly option. Because the linseed oil makes the product anti-bacterial, natural linoleum is a good choice for medical and hygienic environments.


Of the tile products, recycled-content tile is a good green option. Recycled-content tile is made with glass products like salvaged light bulbs, auto windshields, or the byproducts of feldspar mining. Tiles with high percentages of recycled materials can be more expensive than typical tiles. Like other ceramics, products with recycled-content are durable and attractive. Adhesives that have low toxicities and are price competitive are available.

Vinyl -vinyl composite tiles (VCT)

If possible, use linoleum, cork, or tile in place of vinyl. However, if vinyl must be used, vinyl composite tiles (VCT) should be used, which contains less VOCs and can be repaired more easily than sheet vinyl.(source: Portland's Green Building Resource)


Exposed concrete can be left exposed, rather than adding additional flooring materials. Concrete is appropriate for radiant, in-floor heating systems.


The main issues to consider when choosing carpeting is the process required to manufacture the carpet, the influence it has on indoor air quality, and methods of disposal or recycling of old carpets.

Most carpets are made of synthetic fibers, such as nylon, polyester, olefin these days. This is because synthetics, such as nylon, olefins, and polyester, are durable, lightweight, can easily be cleaned, and are cheaper than natural fibers, such as wool. All synthetic fibers are petroleum based and require a high-energy use to manufacture. Unlike other synthetic fibers, polyester carpets can be manufactured from post-consumer recycled plastic packaging.

Wool is the most durable type of carpet or rug. Wool carpets are available without toxic dying and other environmentally destructive processes. The main drawback from using wool is that it tends to be more expensive than synthetic fibers.

Some polyester carpets can be produced using post-consumer recycled plastic packaging. The EPA's Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (CPD) designates 25-100% total recovered materials content (all post-consumer) for polyester carpet face fiber.

Some carpet manufacturers, such as Milliken, will take back modular carpet tiles and restore them to "like new" condition.


Adhesives used to install carpet can outgas VOCs. It is recommended to use water-based glues, or mechanical fasteners such as tack strips or double-sided tape for carpet when possible. When installing tile, cement mortar should be used in place of glue.

Checklist for buying green carpet (from GreenSeal):

  • Buy refurbished carpet whenever possible
  • Specify carpet with high overall recycled content
  • Ask whether environmental leasing or take-back programs are provided by the manufacturer
  • Use carpet tiles where appropriate
  • Buy carpet that will likely be easily accepted for recycling. (Carpets containing nylon 6 face fiber and vinyl-backed carpets are currently recyclable, polyester is not).
  • Consider purchasing carpet made of wool or other natural fibers
  • Buy carpet that is solution dyed
  • Buy carpet that meets CRI Indoor Air Quality standards (Green Label program)
  • Ensure that low VOC adhesives are used during installation
  • Select an appropriate color for the carpet (light colors tend to get soiled easily and may require frequent use of harsh cleaning chemicals).

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