Dear Umbra,

If I have to replace my old carpet, what are the environmental pros and cons of the different choices? (Ceramic tile, carpet, or the laminate flooring sold at Home Depot seem to be the most common.) And can I recycle my old carpet?

Claudia Bloom
Mesa, Ariz.

Dearest Claudia,

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I’m going to lay out all the flooring choices of which I’m aware, and I’ll talk about some of them in depth in upcoming columns. In terms of your carpet, you might be able to recycle it or give it for reuse if it’s not in bad condition. Call around to charity organizations, or check with manufacturers and your state about recycling it. You can search the web using terms like “carpet reclamation,” or start your hunt with this handy handout from California.

Let sleeping dogs lie … on a shiny,
new eco-floor.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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You have your own aesthetic (and probably climatological) guidelines for choosing a flooring material, so perhaps ingredients to avoid would be a useful start. First: nothing vinyl, and that’s final. Second: quite a few flooring products need adhesives, including carpet, laminate, and fake linoleum. These adhesives can include formaldehyde and those pesky volatile organic compounds, which we can and should avoid, so look into that as you shop. Any product will have a material safety data sheet, which you can peruse at your leisure on the internet.

We are all convinced that carpet is the only cuddly floor covering, but it does not get my imprimatur. After researching for a bit too long, I’ve become a big fan of cork. Much of the cork flooring available to us comes from well-managed plantations in Portugal, and sounds kind of dreamy: it’s harvested, at sustainable intervals, off living trees, but the process does not harm them. Perhaps not appropriate for high-traffic areas, cork is definitely soft and warm to bare feet, as well as quite high in conversation value.

Then you’ve got your wood. If nice wood lurks under your carpet, please refinish and enjoy it. When you buy wood, look for the Forest Stewardship Council label or locally reclaimed products. Some companies refinish submerged trees and telephone poles and things like that; I think those woods would be considered OK. By the way, it’s not necessary to pound nails into your subfloor for a wood product. There are “floating” floors that click together and lie atop it.

Bamboo is a wood-like flooring, imported but in some cases quite a good sustainable choice — more on that in a coming column. Ceramic and/or glass tile is an excellent choice in most situations, simply because it lasts forever, and if you find locally made or partially recycled tile, that’s even better. True linoleum is making a comeback. Vinyl has passed as linoleum for several decades, but the real stuff is a mixture of materials, usually wood, cork, pine resin, and linseed oil. The linseed oil can be a bit stinky, but the flooring will last and last. You could go wacky and put in an earthen floor. This choice sounds fairly amazing to me. Apparently it’s a mix of soil, sand, and straw, pounded into place and then oiled. I want to see it.

An important part of your flooring hunt is to look beyond Home Despot. Like some of the other big-box stores, it does carry FSC-certified wood, so look into that — but also see if you can buy locally. A green-building supplier is lurking near you, I just feel it. Scottsdale has a green building program. It looks like Arizona State University has been building a green research facility in Mesa — holy cow, their web page also says it’s currently 70 degrees. I am distracted with envy, and can no longer think about flooring.


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