Q. Is it possible to get environmentally friendly carpeting or area rugs?
A. Remember the plush shagadelic carpeting of the 70s? Or the wall-to-wall craze of the 80s? Back then, hardwood lost out to carpets, whose soft, padded texture was considered ideal for kids and nice on the feet.
Then people started talking about the dark side of carpeting, how it traps allergens like dust mites and can create problems for asthmatic children, and how all sorts of mystery fumes offgas from its fibres. For its part, the industry says carpets do trap allergens, but in a good way, keeping them from being airborne, especially if you vacuum with a good vacuum once or twice a week. (Obviously, carpets aren't for lazy people). They also say emissions from new carpets dissipate within 48 to 72 hours.
No doubt the carpet industry has done some serious revamping over the last few years to spruce up its green cred. But carpets are still generally made of petrolem-based fibres like nylon that require a massive a amount of energy and water to make, not to mention all the hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds released in the process. Then, turning those fibres into carpeting tends to involve another huge influx of energy and water (about 23,000 BTUs of energy and 10.1 gallons of water per square yard, to be exact), although these figures are an improvement over the old numbers. Carpet dying methods also have a dodgy history, although new dry "solution dyeing" is said to be relatively greener.
Nylon carpeting is considered the most durable, and nylon-6 is recyclable, so manufacturers like Interface, Mohawk and Shaw include up to 50 per cent recycled content in some products. At the head of the class is Milliken's Earth Square process, using 100 per cent refurbished post-consumer nylon. Milliken was also the first company to send zero waste to landfills and go PVC-free. (Downtown Rug on Queen West carries all four brands; Carpet Mill on Carlaw carries Shaw and Mohawk, and Reliable on Dundas West carries Interface).
While polypropylene and polyester (PET) rugs are more environmentally friendly to produce, they aren't as durable and can't be recycled. But Beaulieu, Mohawk and Talisman all produce PET lines made of 100 per cent recycled pop bottles.
But what you see is never just what you get. Over half the carpet's weight comes from the backing. And almost all the synthetic plastics used as carpet backing are linked to serious eco problems. Stay away from PVC backings that, while recylable, contain phthalates that might offgas throughout the life of the carpet. Synthetic rubber is toxic to the workers who make the stuff but isn't supposed to be harmful as a finished product. Wool and jute are natural though harder-to-find options. Shaw also has a carpet cushioning called BioBalance made with soybean oil.
Glues, seam sealers and carpet padding can all offgas VOCs, but the glues are probably the worst emitters. Adhesives aren't used in home installations as extensively as they are in commercial spaces. If any glues will be used, make sure to request water-based, low-VOC ones.
In an effort to clean up their image, many manufacturers now have take-back programs. Some, like Milliken, go so far as to provide written guarantees that your carpet will be recycled.
The U.S. Carpet and Rug Institute has also developed an indoor air quality testing program. Rugs that meet its emissions standards have a Green Label logo (for more details and a list of compliant products, check carpet-rug.com). Although one green builder we spoke to dissed the industry-run program as greenwashing.
If you'd rather avoid synthetics altogether, plant-based jute, seagrass and sisal rugs are available at most carpet stores. FYI, wall-to-wall sisal is usually synthetic (the real stuff is tough to install wall-to-wall).
Wool carpets are available pretty much everywhere, but finding ones that are free of chemical treatments and moth-proofers is almost impossible. You basically have to head online. Nature's Carpet sells undyed or vegetable-dyed organic wool area rugs and carpeting (www.naturescarpet.com), as do Casa Natura (www.casanaturainc.com) and Eco Choices ( ecochoices.com).
Rawganique offers certified organic European hemp area and throw rugs in pretty colours like ocean blue, Oregon grape and sage green (tinted with low-impact dyes, starting at $30 for a small throw, at www.rawganique.com).
Closer to home, Ten Thousand Villages on Danforth carries hand-knotted, fairly traded rugs in traditional Oriental designs made in Pakistan, or more modern geometric styles woven in Nepal, all of 100 pure wool or silk-and-wool blends. Some of the rugs are dyed using natural pigments. The store's bringing in a travelling caravan of rugs in the last week of March, offering a much larger selection.
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