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The Carpet Chronicles

The trouble with fuzzy floors

Be it basic Berber or retro shag, carpet feels good underfoot, absorbs sound, and can add color and style to a room. No wonder it covers nearly 70% of the floors in the United States.

Best options for carpet

But some indoor-air quality experts suggest thinking twice about blanketing your floors with wall-to-wall fibers. Some new carpets emit a host of noxious chemicals that you’ll be breathing for months and even years after they’re installed. Another concern is that carpet acts as a reservoir for dust and dust mites, pet dander, soot, pollen, odors, fleas, and lots of other stuff you’d rather not have take up residence in your home–especially if you’ve got young children who spend most of their time down at floor level.

Smooth-surface floors–think hardwood, ceramic tile, linoleum, or concrete–are easier to keep clean than carpet, so they’re usually a better choice from a healthy-home perspective. And carpet has a host of other environmental problems: it’s a short-lived material that ends up in landfills or incinerators. Also, the majority of the carpet sold in the United States is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals.

But you don’t necessarily have to give up on carpets. Over the past decade a number of manufacturers have led the way toward cleaning up their industry’s practices. Products are now available that are healthier for people and the planet.


Top Tips

At home

  • Air it out. Carpet emits the most chemicals when it’s new. Leave windows and doors open, and run a portable fan or the fan of your heating or air conditioning system for 48 to 72 hours after installation to remove chemical vapors. If you plan to do this, consider installing carpet when the weather is mild so you don’t waste as much energy.
  • Keep it clean. Frequent use of a vacuum is a crucial to any carpet cleaning strategy.

When shopping look for

  • Durability. Choose high quality carpets–either made from natural materials such as wool (which require much less petroleum to manufacture) or recycled synthetic materials.
  • Healthy adhesives. Choose carpet, pads, and adhesives certified to have low emissions of VOCs and formaldehyde. Or skip the adhesives altogether and tack down the carpet using tack strips. Look for the Green Label Plus seal of approval from the Carpet and Rug Institute. Be aware, however, that while the Green Label Plus covers emissions of some worrisome chemicals, it doesn’t cover others, such as flame retardants and perfluorocarbons.
  • Carpet tiles? Consider carpets sold in small pieces called “tiles” rather than “broadloom” (or sheet) carpets. Some brands of carpet tiles don’t require any adhesive and can be picked up and rearranged when you want to change a room’s look. If areas become worn or stained, tiles can be selectively replaced. (You might want to buy some extras for the future in case the color or pattern you choose is no longer made.)
  • Recycled fiber. If you want a synthetic carpet, choose one with recycled content in the “face” fiber, the backing, or both. The higher the post-consumer recycled content, the more waste is diverted from landfills. Recycled carpet looks and performs as well as virgin-fiber synthetic carpet, and it keeps plastic waste out of landfills and incinerators. It takes about 40 two-liter plastic bottles to make a square yard of recycled polyester carpet.
  • Earth-friendly manufacturers. Favor companies who guarantee they will take back the carpet at the end of its life for recycling. Recycling 500 square feet of carpet saves 24 gallons of oil, 550,000 Btu of energy and 247 pounds of landfill waste.

Avoid

  • Petroleum-based carpets. Wool carpets are one option, as are floor coverings made from jute, seagrass, cotton, and other natural fibers. Some manufacturers are now making carpets with polyester-like materials derived from corn. And some are using soy instead of petrochemicals to make carpet backing. Agricultural products aren’t a perfect solution, however, considering the high levels of petroleum, pesticides, and other chemicals used for conventional farming.

Benefits…

…to your health
Remember that old advertising slogan “better living through chemistry”? Well, it didn’t quite work out that way with most carpets. Their fibers and the pads below them often emit potentially hazardous levels of VOCs and other chemicals. The worst fumes come from the carpet backing but even the face of the carpet is typically treated with stain-resistant, soil-resistant and antimicrobial chemicals. Some health and environmental experts oppose the use of antimicrobials in particular, concerned that they may lead to the growth of strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Carpet fibers can also absorb the odors from new paint and furniture, holding onto these noxious chemicals and then releasing them into the air when someone walks on the carpet. For people who are sensitive to these chemicals, the fluff under their feet starts looking more ominous than elegant.

…to the Earth and your wallet
Carpet is also the most short-lived of the flooring alternatives, often lasting only 10 to 15 years. That makes it a problem in landfills, and a drain on your pocketbook. For example: The upfront costs of carpet and hardwood floors can be about the same. But, the hardwood floor may last two or three times as long.


Common Mistakes

Blanketing your heater. If you put carpet over radiant floor heating, you’ll reduce the heating system’s effectiveness.


Getting Started

  • See if your area has one of the handful of organizations that accepts used carpets for recycling. They charge a fee for your old carpet, but it may be cheaper than sending it to the dump.
  • If you’re still mystified about how to find a greener carpet, consider buying from a store that specializes in environmentally friendly home products. They’ll be knowledgeable about the best choices.
  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:
    • How much expertise does the contractor have installing carpet?
    • Ask to for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you’ve chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.
    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.
  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.

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10 Responses to “The Carpet Chronicles”

  1. Miroslav Says:

    Honestly, I think carpet is like a hub for germs! I honestly recommend steam cleaning it often, especially if you have kids. Or you can simply install FSC certified, low-VOC stained, sustainably hardwood floors and just forget about the nasty stuff that lives in carpets.

  2. parker valves Says:

    This was a truly incredibly superior post. In theory I’d wish to write like this also – getting time and actual effort to make a great piece of writing… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means appear to obtain a thing done.

  3. How Green Is My Carpet? Says:

    [...] [xiii] Sierra Club. Carpet: the trouble with fuzzy floors. At http://www.sierraclubgreenhome.com/home-health/carpet/ [...]

  4. Anna Churchill Says:

    What about in kids playroom? Wood floors will be hard on the knees. Is there any alternative to carpet? I didn’t find this article that helpful. It says to buy from earth-friendly manufacturers but doesn’t tell me how to find them.

  5. Suzanne Engert Says:

    Thank you for the very informative article on what to look for in rugs/carpets. I’d like to mention our company as a source for non-outgassing area rugs: Garuda Woven Art.

    Our rugs are handwoven in Nepal. The pile is Tibetan wool and the foundation is unbleached cotton. We use natural dyes exclusively (with alum as a mordant). The rugs are washed with either soapnut or a mild soap. No chemical treatments are used: no mothproofing, stainproofing or glues. That’s it! As a result, our rugs don’t stink.

    The colors are gorgeous and the rugs are extremely durable–they should last generations!

  6. Trudy Says:

    Those supposedly envior-kind carpet tiles have PVC backing! – One of the worst, most toxic substances ever created. I live in Texas where almost ALL houses are on a cement slab. It is not smart to put wood over cement (termites). I have stained concrete in the kitchen and bath, but my living, dining and bedrooms really need carpet. This is a horrible quandry to be in – and I don’t think those natural rugs will fit right tho I will look. It’s a tough place to be – and do you put $15,000 carpeting in a $130,000 house? More help is needed in this arena!

  7. Greening Your Office – Carpets | Greenschoolandoffice's Blog Says:

    [...] Sierra Club Green Home Like this:Like Loading… [...]

  8. Chris Says:

    This is a great resource. Good article.Important and numerous information. Thank you.

  9. cheryl Says:

    Great post thank you for sharing.

  10. Jenny Cindrella Says:

    Good chronicle! Information about carpets and its maintenance report is simply awesome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…..


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