Understanding Sustainable Floorcovering Options
Floorcoverings are an underrated component of any facility’s sustainability plan. If the wrong floorcoverings are chosen, they wind up being replaced well before the end of their useful life, which is not environmentally responsible. But on the plus side, floorcoverings can contribute to overall facility sustainability plans when products with low VOC emissions and high recycled content are chosen.
These days, facility managers are more frequently considering a full environmental life-cycle assessment for floorcovering products, including requesting Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations from manufacturers to weigh product selection. Of course, cost and performance are still a crucial criteria in product selection, however, the sustainability performance of floorcoverings is becoming as important.
Natural material products are becoming more popular as an environmentally sustainable floorcovering product. From a chemistry standpoint, these products are more environmentally friendly than traditional products, but greener chemistry is not necessarily the same as green chemistry.
For instance, all these products are still based on fossil fuels or contain some fossil fuel component such as a thermo elastomer. And they don’t necessarily have established reclamation strategies. It’s worth remembering that just because a plastic is recyclable doesn’t mean that it will be recycled. That’s the big difference, for instance, between recycled PET bottles and recycled PET carpet fiber. It’s incumbent on manufacturers touting their sustainability to choose polymers that not only perform well, eliminate chemicals of concern and reduce emissions, but that also have a viable system in place after the end of their useful life. If the concern is to use this type of flooring material then purchases have to make sure they do their research on how green the product and the process of manufacturing is, and not be so enamored of the sales pitch that may be given about the product.
In the world of hard surface flooring products, particularly Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) and Luxury Vinyl Plank (LVP), the majority of these products are produced overseas and particularly in China. Purchasers don’t always know what they're going to get and what’s gone into the product to make it. Every major flooring manufacturer is importing these products because no domestic manufacturer can keep up with the demand for these products. If a facility is going to buy these products, it’s best to purchase them from a major U.S. manufacturer, even though they may not make the product, so there is at least some peace of mind that they will warrant the purchase.
Other issues purchasers should be concerned about include where the product is manufactured, the environmental footprint of that facility or company, and the embodied energy of the product. In other words, do these products use less energy in their manufacture than the products that have been used and are being used?
There’s a lot of talk about PVC and PVC free products. The Ortho-phthalates used as a plasticizer in all PVC products, whether or not they are in flooring products, have been said to be carcinogenic. If facility managers want to avoid vinyl, there are plenty of resilient flooring options available, including rubber and linoleum. But PVC-free flooring can be a challenge to integrate into projects because it is typically expensive, and in some cases its durability or environmental credentials may not even be that great. Some rubber flooring, for instance, can have potentially significant life-cycle and health impacts. Some major flooring manufacturers are attempting to address these concerns with new PVC-free, Cradle to Cradle-certified resilient flooring options.
There are flooring products which are considered natural such as linoleum types. Sometimes the “natural” part of these products can present performance problems especially if they repeatedly get wet from cleaning. This can cause the edges to curl and the product to lift.
One major flooring manufacturer is producing a polyurethane flooring made from soy-based resins, and another flooring product made from highly recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — the same plastic used for water and soda bottles. Both offer the promise of environmentally superior, cost- and performance-competitive options to standard luxury vinyl tile (LVT) or vinyl sheet flooring.
Rubber flooring can be made from natural rubber or recycled rubber tires. Rubber tile and sheet goods is a high-performance product often used in hospitals. Recycled rubber is ground up car and truck tires that is a blend of these materials that can also contain a soup of chemicals. Purchasers have to know what they’re buying and specifying for a project, so they don’t run into problems.
Polished and stained concrete has increased in popularity since it's using the concrete substrate the building already has as the flooring. It won’t create any green-related problems.
The consideration of green flooring products today is significant, but price also has to be considered as well as performance and maintenance. If these new products perform well but remain pricey, they’ll still find a strong niche in sectors like healthcare, education, and probably corporate. But if they can compete head-to-head on price with vinyl flooring, then this may be the beginning of a major trend.
Choosing flooring may be one of the hardest decisions in the building industry. Performance, design options, budget, installation, maintenance, embodied impacts, and durability all come into play. With all that in mind, there’s no perfect solution. Even after narrowing it down based on application and decided resilient flooring is best, there are still a dizzying number of options.
This may be part of the reason the industry tends to default to luxury vinyl tile and plank and, for healthcare situations, sheet vinyl. Vinyl’s low cost, popular design options, well understood installation, and low maintenance make it an easy choice.
Other considerations are the track record of a product or its place of origin. There are products on the market that have been problematic both in hard and soft surface flooring materials. If facility managers don’t do their research, they may wind up with one of them only to have them fail. At that point they are faced with not only having to replace the product and the likelihood that it will wind up in a landfill — there goes your green initiative. In addition, managers will have the cost of replacement, sourcing another product, shutting down the areas of their facility that are affected by the failed flooring and the aggravation of dealing with this issue.
One of the most important considerations to be as green as possible is to make sure the flooring material being considered or specified can perform and be installed without failing. There is a famous saying about flooring: “get it in the door and keep it on the floor.” No matter how green a product is, if it fails, needs to be replaced, winds up in a landfill and costs a fortune, it wasn’t green.
Lewis G. Migliore is president of LGM & Associates and has been associated with the floor covering industry for the past 50 years.