Ah fitted carpets. There’s nothing quite as soft on your toes in the morning. As an American, I can attest to the similar fondness for it in the US, where it’s known as wall-to-wall carpet. I know there’s quite a divide on this option, call it the marmite of flooring. I should confess that I rest firmly in the no-carpet-camp, primarily for allergy reasons. But there’s no denying that carpet is still a staple in everyday decorating. So this week I’m continuing with last week's flooring theme and serving up my top tips on how to do carpet sustainably.
Why is carpet unsustainable?
Fitted carpet typically commits two main environmental crimes, but to be clear, conventional synthetic carpet is the culprit.
Crime no. 1: these synthetic materials are derived from non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels;
Crime no 2: this kind of carpet can introduce a whole host of toxins, reducing indoor air quality.
Carpet made from synthetic fibers such as polypropylene, nylon or polyester are petroleum based materials and can’t biodegrade. Synthetic materials can off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Carpet also tends to be backed with vinyl (PVC) which is an irritant and can cause damage to plant workers or styrene and butadiene, which can cause respiratory irritation even at low levels of exposure.
Carpet has a few partners in crime, namely its associated underlay, adhesives, and stain guards. Carpet underlay or padding is typically made of amalgamations of recycled plastics and rubbers, which sounds good. Unfortunately that means it’s likely heavily coated in flame retardants, which while necessary, can off-gas hazardous chemicals. Carpet adhesives can also contain carcinogenic VOCs such as benzene and toluene. And finally, stain-resistant finishers can contain ‘perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, which are also carcinogenic and a hormone disruptor.
OK, so this is painting a rather dark picture. I’m not here to scare anyone or guilt trip you about their carpet. I understand that synthetic carpets are inexpensive therefore readily available, and just downright comfy. I just think these impacts and effects aren’t discussed enough, and therefore may not be factored into both the price and our decisions when purchasing carpet. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives made from renewable or recycled resources, which have disrupted these conventions around carpeting.
Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) materials
Some of the most innovative carpeting solutions around are those made from environmental pollutants like plastic fishing nets and plastic bottles. Given the amount of plastic floating around, expect to see more and more PCR products and materials. Sedna, for example, has a new line made from ECONYL® regenerated nylon, which comes with an ECO FusionBac textile back, made from 100% recycled PET plastic bottles. Yes this is synthetic, which I just spent a good amount of time slating, but as their use helps to clean up the environment, they’re a win-win.
A wool known option
Wool is the usually the number one recommendation when it comes to sustainable carpeting, and for good reason. It’s a renewable resource, is hardwearing, naturally flame retardant and easy to clean. In the UK, the Naked Flooring Company have a specialised eco-wool and also do beautiful herringbone pattern options. Crucial Trading have a wide range of wool carpets with natural backing, including this fantastic linen and wool blend. Alternative Flooring have probably the widest range and most fun patterns in their wool collection. And for a slightly more upmarket option, try Kersaint Cobb. I love their Beach Hut Stripe collection. In the US, there are many options, but here is a good place to start.
Look at wool carpets that have natural backing like jute, which reduces the need for adhesives.
Wool will often be mixed with nylon or other synthetics. There are a range of claims as to why this is preferable, including that this eliminates the static electricity build up that comes from rubber shoes walking on wool carpet. If you’re going down the full sustainable route, opt for the 100% wool and instill a no-shoes rule!
Wool can require moth treatment, which can emit VOCs. It’s possible to request untreated, but this runs the risk of a pest invasion.
Animal agriculture can be resource intensive and while the UK has an abundance of sheep, wool is still shipped in from far away places such as New Zealand. Look out for locally grown wool if possible.
Natural alternatives to synthetic carpeting include materials which are produced from plants, husks and grasses. Think jute, coir, seagrass and sisal. Similar to wool, you can get natural carpets in patterns like herringbone and boucle. All of the sources listed above also offer natural carpet options as well. In the US, Sisal Rugs could be a good place to start.
Natural carpet pro-tips:
These materials are hardwearing but not nearly as soft as carpet made from wool or recycled materials. Different weaves have varying degrees of ‘softness’ and generally the bigger the weave the harder it is on feet (we had to remove ours which was there when we bought our house because it hurt my feet so much!).
To be clear, natural does not mean these fibres are necessarily sustainably produced. Sisal, for example, is often grown in plantations which could have caused natural habitat destruction. Ask vendors if they can trace the sources of the materials used in their carpets to determine the sustainability credentials.
Don’t forget the side-kicks
Remember that the side-kicks in environmental crime here are a carpet’s accompanying underlay and adhesives. Sustainable underlay alternatives are made of recycled wool or other natural materials. In the UK look out for envirolay or envirofelt. In the US, have a look here. For adhesives, request for water-based adhesives to be used, which are now widely available. If you’re going down the modular carpet tile route (which may be best for commercial applications or homes with kids) the Interface TacTiles system is groundbreaking. Made of recycled plastic and almost entirely VOC-free, it’s worth looking into and is available in the UK and US. In a lot of cases you can skip adhesives and use nail strips, so it’s worth checking with the installers if that is an option.
Thinking of replacing your old carpet any time soon? Recycling schemes for old carpet are now well-established. In the UK, visit Carpet Recycling UK to find a recycler near you. In the US, look here at the Carpet Recovery effort.
There is always room for more in the no-carpet-camp, which is generally a much more sustainable option than fitted carpets, simply because less resources are required to make and ship carpet around. But if carpet is still your bag, I hope this bulletin has given you good insight into how to tread more lightly with your flooring.