Q My landlord is thinking of replacing our scary, mouldy carpet with some kind of hard floor. We're happy but worried that whatever replaces it will be even more hazardous to our health and the environment. Any suggestions?
A Let's take a moment of silence to wish your loathsome carpet a happy afterlife in ratty rug hell (aka the dump). An old carpet can trap lung-compromising mould and dust in its fibres as well as truly terrifying environmental pollutants like DDT long after they were banned.
So what do you replace it with? Well, if there's salvageable hardwood underneath, it can be sanded and refinished. But this kicks up a lot of lung-irritating dust, and most chemicals involved in the process are very toxic off-gassers, so you'll have to move out of your place for at least a week. Insist on low-VOC, formaldehyde-free urethane sealant like AFM Safecoat's Polyureseal BP, or better yet, AFM's natural oil wax (www.afmsafecoat.com).
If there's no rescue potential under there, don't fret. There are so many earth-friendly options on the market these days, it's truly heart-warming (or should I say, foot-warming). Trouble is, none of them comes cheap, although some are certainly pricier than others.
Slick and beautiful bamboo is an extra-hard fibre that looks like wood, but the plant is more of a weed than a tree. Bamboo flooring can take a lot of abuse, so it'll stand up to wear and tear long after you move out and a heavy-footed family moves in. Note: softer, cheaper young bamboo might warp and wear more than the older stock.
Homeowners willing to invest a little coin for quality should call an environmentally responsible company like EcoLogo-certified Silkroad Flooring (www.silkroadtoronto.com). You can get bamboo flooring from $5.69 per square foot from Organic Lifestyles in Hazelton Lanes. Wherever you buy, make sure you're getting virtually formaldehyde-free finishes.
Ultra-sustainable cork flooring involves stripping Mediterranean cork trees of bark now and then. These forests provide essential habitat to many endangered species, and cork harvesting is actually encouraged by environmentalists, believe it or not. Plus, cork floors are warm and soft on your feet. They're also highly durable and easy to install, although I wouldn't recommend them in areas prone to flooding. Price wise, cork is a little better than bamboo. (The Healthiest Home in Ottawa, www.thehealthiesthome.com, sells cork from $4.05/square foot prefinished, less unfinished.)
In the same range is marmoleum. This is the new linoleum, made with 100 per cent natural ingredients like linseed oil, cork and tree resin. Though prices vary, the Healthiest Home sells it for $4 to $5 per square foot. It comes in hundreds of colours and funky patterns.
But if you want that wood look and your landlord's not going to cough up the coin for FSC-certified or reclaimed wood (when pig's fly, right?), Mississauga-based Torlys makes laminate flooring (you know the kind where the top layer is basically a photo of wood) ultra low in VOCs from about $3/square foot (check out Downtown Flooring on Queen West). It's made of recycled paper, managed wood fibre and resin and can supposedly be burned as fuel without hazardous emissions. (Not too sure why you'd make a bonfire with your floorboards, but still....) It also has laminate bamboo options and can be unsnapped and moved three times under warrantee.
My final pick among the less costly lesser evils is engineered floors. They have a thin veneer of wood on the top and, like laminates, high-density fibre (HDF) underneath. Engineered wood has some eco advantages in that it uses up to half as much wood as a solid wood floor. You just have to make sure there's next to no formaldehyde binding that HDF together. (Again, Torlys makes some of these. Go to www. torlys. com for dealers.)
And hey, if your landlord is considering carpeting, make sure to get all the dirt first by checking out last year's Ecoholic column on carpeting (www. nowtoronto.com).
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