A quick snapshot on Sustainable Flooring

by Tania Wannenburg

What are the ‘green’ benefits regarding various floor types? Here we identify those floor types that can indeed be considered sustainable.

Green and sustainable buildings remain a hot topic in the flooring industry, which is gathering significant momentum as the need for green buildings that respect the environment continues to increase with the aim of minimising waste and pollution. People’s health is directly influenced in a positive manner and, in turn, the productivity of a building’s occupants.  

Sustainable flooring is made from materials that have little negative impact on the environment, and by manufacturing processes that cause less pollution than other processes. Sustainable flooring has several advantages. Firstly, it reduces exposure to harmful pollutants and chemicals that can cause anything from asthma to allergies; secondly, it can also be more cost-efficient than other flooring choices; lastly, it is visually beautiful.

The following factors can affect a flooring material’s impact on the environment:
•    Its ability to be renewed;
•    Its ability to be recycled;
•    A responsible manufacturer;
•    Transport distance;
•    Toxicity to the environment; and
•    Its life cycle.

Flooring is a vital part of any interior’s fit-out. It affects not only the look of a space but the experience, which is why it is so exciting to see a move in the market to supply products that perform double duty, i.e. they have to be aesthetically pleasing but with a consciousness of how they are made, where from, and where they will go.  

Certifications, regulations and tools also drive companies to ensure that they are able to implement sustainable attributes and, in turn, gain recognition through these certifications to show their public a high level of commitment as a company when it comes to achieving good ratings.

There are several options available that can assist a project in achieving a good rating. For example, The Green Building Council of South Africa encourages the selection of flooring that has a reduced environmental impact when compared to available alternatives.

We will determine how ‘green’ or sustainable the following floor types are, and the results may very well come as a surprise to some readers as this article will most likely debunk some embedded beliefs.
•    Cork – From harvest to installation, this naturally renewable material is manufactured from the bark of the cork oak tree, which grows back after being harvested. It provides insulation against heat and cold, and is naturally repellent to bugs and mites. Some cork flooring is made from recycled bottle stoppers.

•    Bamboo – This is one of the greatest sustainable materials as it is in fact a grass and not a hardwood from a tree. Bamboo can replace itself completely in just three to five years, and the older culms (stalks) can be harvested every year without damaging the forests, making it easy to renew itself. Bamboo’s credentials are held in high esteem by the environment.  Many bamboo products are carbon-neutral (or even carbon-positive), even after taking into account their transport to final destinations.

•    Linoleum – Linoleum is an all-natural material which is made from linseed oil. Its manufacture is low impact, and does not require a large expenditure of energy to produce sheets and tiles. While it does require an adhesive for installation, linoleum itself does not give off gases or produce any volatile organic chemicals. In addition, it is biodegradable, and can be recycled as fuel at the end of its life cycle.

•    Laminates – Laminates are manufactured as several component layers, each consisting of a different substance. The production process is such that it is possible to make very earth friendly materials if the correct practises are used. Many of the materials used to produce it can be recycled from waste products. In addition the majority of the laminate itself should also be recyclable, either as reclaimed pieces for new installations, or to be burned as an efficient source of energy. That makes the life cycle of these floors a closed loop, with little or no waste ending up in the landfill at the end of its usability.

•    Seamless quartz flooring – the long term durability of this flooring system means that it is replaced less often than most other flooring types. With 90% of the floor system being comprised of unused natural glacial alluvial quartz and the resins being solvent free and VOC free, the quartz floor system ticks all the sustainability boxes.

•    Ceramic Floor Tiles – Ceramics are made from natural materials – mostly clay mixed with small-particle sediments. Manufacturing ceramic tile doesn’t waste any non-renewable resources, and at the end of its life cycle it can be recycled or broken back down into the environment. Within a commercial setting, it is considered a strong and durable flooring material, and with a glazed surface it can be made impervious to water and stains, making it ideal for high-traffic spaces. There are also no VOCs or emissions from ceramic and porcelain products.

•    Vinyl – Vinyl is one of the few building materials which are 100% recyclable. Unlike other plastics, it can be endlessly recycled into new products and materials, adding value and durability. Extending the lifespan of any product is a great strategy for reducing its environmental impact,  which is why vinyl is such a good choice as it is both stain- and water-resistant. The principle raw material for vinyl is derived from common salt – an abundant and inexpensive natural resource. Vinyl resin takes less energy to produce than most other materials, resulting in a lower level of greenhouse emissions throughout its lifespan.

•    Luxury Vinyl Tiles/Planks/Sheets  These beautiful products that imitate the real look and feel of wooden flooring pride themselves on being eco-friendly and environmentally stable. For example, luxury planks will have a much longer lifespan compared to the authentic wood product which will require very specific cleaning and maintenance to keep it looking good, whereas LVTs and LVPs usually require just a bit of detergent and a mop to clean them. The lifespan also determines the recyclable attributes of the selected product, and in this case LVT will outlive its wooden counterpart, meaning less dumping and less energy being spent trying to break the product down.

•    Natural Stone – Stone is a natural product of the earth and is constantly being recreated by natural tectonic processes. It doesn’t harm the environment and can be recycled into other flooring projects. However, its weight may affect the impact of transport on the environment, especially with regard to imported material.

•    Concrete – It is one of the most ecologically friendly building materials available. It is made from abundant natural materials, can assist in thermal management of buildings and is fully recyclable. Its main ingredient is limestone, which is one of the most abundant materials available. Other ingredients include silica, and fly ash and slag which can be obtained as waste from various manufacturing processes.

•    Recycled Rubber Floors and Underlays – These are the most environmentally friendly types of rubber floors and underlays and are made from recycled rubber such as that found in old car tyres. This material helps to eliminate waste, thus making it a low-impact floorcovering choice. In addition, by choosing wet pour in-situ rubber floors that do not require adhesive, one eliminates the production and waste elimination of an extra chemical formed in the flooring process.

•    Carpets & Carpet Tiles – Natural wool is still a truly unique carpet fibre. Carpets in general are considered sustainable due to the fact that they use natural fibres such as cotton, sisal, jute and coconut husk, as well as wool. Carpets are good thermal insulators reducing consumption for heating. Some carpets also use post-consumer and post-industrial recycled polyester, polypropylene and nylon fibres. Synthetics such as polyester could have up to 100% recycled content (recycled PE water bottles). Durable and well-maintained carpets last longer and therefore need to be replaced less frequently. A carpet’s underlayment has to be manufactured using the finest-quality recycled granules in order to be considered a ‘green’ product. It is also critical that a carpet’s end-life is recyclable, for example carpet tiles. Should there be a need for a single carpet to be replaced, it may be a good idea to consider carpet tiles, as each individual tile can be removed and then replaced, without having to reinstall a whole new carpet and some of the carpet tile backings are using a lot of recycled content. A very underrated aspect is the difference a considerate manufacturer can make with its choice of materials, chemicals and processes.

•    Recycled Hardwood Floors – This refers to wood that has been recycled from other flooring or building applications. While hardwood does require the harvesting of natural resources, it is relatively easy to find companies that are actively engaged in replanting and repopulating efforts. This allows for a constant cycle of sustainable growth, while providing a flooring material that brings the beauty of nature into the built environment. By utilising waste material, the chopping down of a living tree is prevented. However, it is important to ensure that the wood being used was never treated with toxic chemicals over the course of its life.

•    Recycled and Reclaimed Brick Flooring – One of the primary attributes of recycled brick flooring is that no resources or energy have to be used in the creation of the material. No pollution goes into the air from the firing process, and instead of treating the bricks as waste, they can be reused in a new flooring installation.

The advancements in technology have most certainly played a significant role in the continued growth of eco-friendly products that are sustainable. Each flooring sector is making its own moves to reduce harsh chemicals as consumers demand environmental reports on the factories where these specific floor types were created.

This year’s biggest trend is predicted to be the informed consumer. Corporates are starting to move away from suppliers who don’t comply or are not providing adequate sustainability data. The recycling or up-cycling game is also growing by making use of old finishes and rejuvenating spaces without having to strip them completely.

There is also more thought being put into the longevity of products and the replacement process. This is because building owners want to know how the product they are considering to purchase and install is going to look but, most of all, how these factors will increase a floor’s longevity.  

Acknowledgment and thanks go to Sian Cohen, Business Development Manager from the GBCSA; The Concrete Institute; Belgotex Floors; Norcross SA; Nouwens Carpets; Nouwens Custom Weave; Panda Bamboo Products; Polyflor SA; Seamless Flooring Systems; Van Dyck and Wood Floors SA for his contribution to this article, as well as the following websites: http://flooring.about.com; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable; www.leadingarchitecture.co.za; www.leadingarchitectur.co.za; www.rifci.com; and www.floorsdirect.co.za

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