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"Green" Area Rugs and Flooring

By Ron Neal

Over the years, a debate has taken place in the flooring industry over the impact its products have on the environment. In 2003, a group of industry researches and technical specialists met at the University of North Carolina to examine the science with regard to the positive or negative attributes of materials found in products like carpeting, area rugs and linoleum.

The panel looked at hundreds of studies in relation to how carpet and non-carpet materials contribute to environmental quality and whether there's a significant concern with toxic substances and allergens alleged to have commonly been found.

The intention of the researchers was to try and settle years of anecdotal evidence and set an industry standard to help buyers and sellers of flooring products. A good portion of the information reviewed came from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Health Science Libraries, and other previously published industry experts.

A review of all of the literature led to one major conclusion: materials found in flooring "play a significant role to the quality of life indoors." It contributes to healthy design factors, safety, aesthetics, climate control, ergonomics and physical comfort. When maintained properly, carpeting and area rugs are not at all risks to public health.

While the group's conclusion was great news for the industry and the public, it's still necessary to examine flooring's impact on the whole environment, including the part played by rugs and flooring made from natural materials.

Decorating Like Darwin: By Natural Selection

With so many types of area rugs available today, it's hard enough to make a style selection, let alone having to take health and environmental concerns into account. Keeping rugs clean and in good condition will go a long way in alleviating any concerns. Area rugs do have material differences, though. Here's a quick look at natural fiber rugs and other natural flooring:

WOOL RUGS

Water, water everywhere, so keep it away from wool. Water is one of the biggest enemies of wool rugs. Wool, popular in Oriental rugs, has a high moisture regain and is susceptible to microorganism attack. That may sound like the bad plot to a Hollywood horror film or an episode of Fear Factor. Nevertheless, keep something that requires water, like potted plants, off of wool rugs.

Water aside, wool's long, coarse fibers have the ability to maintain indoor air quality and, unlike synthetic fibers, can absorb indoor contaminants. Since discarded carpet accounts for a tremendous amount of waste - 4.7 billion pounds in 2002 according to the EPA - any rug that lasts longer, like a hand-knotted wool rug, is going to get the seal of approval from the Green Party.

JUTE RUGS

Once used primarily as carpet backing, Jute has made it to the big time. As a full-fledged member of the area rug and carpet family, Jute, which ranges from light tans to browns, is one of the finest and softest of natural floor covering materials.

Composed mainly of plant materials, Jute is a rainy season crop that grows best in warm, humid climates like parts of China and India. While it may grow in rainy weather, the Jute rug won't stand up to areas with high moisture levels. Unlike wool, jute is resistant to microorganisms, but the material will in fact deteriorate rapidly when exposed to moisture.

BAMBOO RUGS

Gilligan's Island no longer corners the market on bamboo flooring. You don't need to live in a hut to use this material.

Bamboo, which is also a trend in cutting boards and hardwood floors, has become a popular option for area rugs. And its environmental friendliness is obvious. No trees to cut down, no waste. Bamboo is technically a grass, and moreover a highly renewable resource. Maturing in less than six years, bamboo is harvested over and over from the same plants. Its strength combined with a natural beauty can add a contemporary touch to any living space.

SEAGRASS RUGS

Seagrass is not something you may have thought was illegal. You can't grow it in your backyard, but it does look great in the house. Created from tropical grass mainly imported from China, Seagrass, which only comes in a natural organic green color, is smooth to the touch and extremely durable and stain resistant.

SISAL RUGS

Sisal is another natural fiber that has recently gained popularity among designers. The material is derived from a cactus plant, grown in semi-arid regions liked Brazil and Africa.

Sisal is stronger and more durable than other natural fibers, making its staying power ultra-environment friendly. Water is not Sisal's friend, either. The rug should never be used in the bathroom or other moist areas of the house.

CORK FLOORING

Now you may be thinking how a rug is made from cork? Well, it's not. Cork has been slipped in to this discussion simply because it can be considered a cousin in the natural fiber family. Used as durable hardwood-type flooring, the cork tree is the only one whose bark can regenerate itself after harvest without damaging the tree or the environment. The tree is never killed or cut down and can produce bark for centuries. Furthermore, almost all of its harvested materials are put to use.

Cork is known for its sound environmental policy, and when feet hit the floor, it's known for its durability. Cork may seem elastic when compared to wood, but its "natural memory ability" and resistance to liquid penetration can make it an attractive alternative.

LINOLEUM FLOORING

This is no joke. Linoleum is back. So break out the disco ball and platform shoes. Vinyl nearly sent linoleum to the flooring scrap yard, but just like bell-bottoms, linoleum is making a comeback. It's contemporary and gets the green seal. While vinyl is synthetic and petroleum-based, linoleum is made entirely of natural materials, linseed oil being the main ingredient.

The resurgence of natural and retro products is behind linoleum's rebirth. As a natural product, linoleum can be recycled and is hypo-allergenic, which benefits those who suffer from allergies or asthma. Linoleum also contains antibacterial properties that help stop the growth of microorganisms.

About the author:

Based in Los Angeles, Ron Neal is a free-lance writer, editor and owner of Writemind Media. With more than 20 years of experience, including six at the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Neal has produced and edited hundreds of articles on a variety of subjects, including flooring, home improvement and area rugs of all kinds, including braided and sisal rugs.


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