Weaving Nature into Carpet

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by Carol Borck

Synthetic Carpet Hazards

Thinking about recarpeting a room or perhaps your entire house? That beautiful, thick polypropylene sample you are admiring is hiding something. A typical synthetic carpet contains about 120 volatile chemicals (VOC's), some of which are neurotoxins, and will off-gas at least 3 to 5 years. These chemicals are found in the flame retardants, pesticides, stain-resistors, glues, dyes, and numerous other treatments and substances that are applied to carpets. You notice these off-gassing chemicals as you inhale that "new carpet smell." Ahhhh...feel your throat closing up? These toxic chemicals contribute to unhealthful, harmful indoor air quality. Common effects include burning eyes and nose, headaches, and nausea; however, symptoms experienced by particularly chemically sensitive people can be much more severe. This in mind, what options are there to avoid filling your home with airborne toxins from a new carpet?

Choosing an Alternative

Petroleum based plastics, including PET, nylon, and polypropylene, form the common building blocks of most synthetic carpets. Combine these plastics with the numerous chemicals mentioned above and you have a very unhealthy, non-renewable, and virtually non-biodegradable mass covering much of the floor area in your home. While it's true that these carpets can be recycled, or are manufactured from recycled plastic (e.g. PET), about 5 billion pounds of used carpets are still sent to U.S. landfills each year. Fortunately, there are alternatives to synthetics, and several manufacturers are producing all natural, non-toxic, biodegradable, renewable carpets made from animal and/or plant fibers.

Wool

Wool carpetOne of the most commonly installed types of natural, renewable carpeting is wool. Several manufacturers now produce wool carpets that are constructed of 100% completely natural, biodegradable, sustainable materials. These carpets are offered in naturally pigmented forms or dyed using water-based, vegetable and plant dyes. They are left untreated, containing no chemical coatings for stain, fire, or insect resistance (wool is naturally fire resistant and repels liquids). Durable hemp or jute fibers, which are naturally resistant to mold and mildew, are typically used as the natural backing on these carpets. Sustainable adhesives, commonly produced from rubber trees, bind these materials together.

Wool is a highly durable, longer lasting substitute for synthetic carpeting. Its natural resistance to soilage allows for easy cleanup of water-borne stains, provided they are attended to at the time the spill occurs. Set stains may require a hot water extraction method to remove. While wool carpeting is generally more expensive than plastic, these 100% completely natural wool carpets are comparably priced to traditionally manufactured wool carpeting. If you are looking for a completely natural, renewable, and healthy carpet, this is a very attractive option.

Plant-based

Plant-based carpeting is found in many forms, including sisal, sea grass, and coir. Perhaps more commonly produced into area rugs, there are a few manufacturers of broadloom carpeting that is made from some of these materials. These carpets are also often available using all natural, non-toxic materials such as jute backings and rubber adhesives and are left chemically untreated. Regular vacuuming of these carpets is recommended to prevent dirt particle scouring. Water and liquid spills should be cleaned up immediately and dried with a cloth or hair blow dryer.

Manufacturers of plant fiber carpeting offer specific guidelines for installation. A key point is allowing the material a minimum of 24 hours to acclimate by unrolling in your home before installation. Because the natural fibers expand or contract depending on climate conditions, following this recommendation will help prevent possible shrinkage after installation. The installation area should be climate controlled and remain as such at least 48 hours after the carpeting is laid.

Sisal carpet Sisal
This stiff fiber comes from the agave plant, and is typically harvested every seven to ten years. It is a sub-tropical/tropical plant and is grown in quantity in East Africa and China. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not used in sisal production. Sisal can be woven into patterns and accepts dyes. It is a good sound absorber, is not subject to static buildup, and is highly durable. Sisal fibers are naturally insulating and flame resistant. Because it absorbs moisture, sisal carpeting is not recommended in areas subject to wet spills or other sorces of water (you can purchase specific sisal fiber sealer and cleaner). Colors vary from a creamy white to pale yellow.
Sea grass carpet Sea grass
Sea grass is a plant that grows in shallow, saline environments, and is largely farmed in China and India. After being harvested by hand, it is dried and spun into cords to be woven. It is highly durable, stain resistant, and smooth and comfortable underfoot. Sea grass cannot be dyed; natural colors fall between neutral beige and olive green.
Coir carpet Coir
Coir is an extremely strong fiber extracted from coconut husks. The fibers are soaked, beaten, washed, dried, and eventually spun into yarn and woven into floor coverings. Coir is hard-wearing, highly rot, pest and flame resistant, and naturally insulating. It is ideal for high traffic areas, but not recommended for placement in kitchens or bathrooms because moisture can affect the weave. While coir can be bleached and dyed, natural colors range from tan to reddish brown.

In addition to wool and the plant-based carpets discussed here, there are even more options for natural fiber carpeting, including wool/hemp, cotton and other blends, linen, mountain grass, and jute. Some manufacturers may not construct their carpets with 100% natural materials or non-toxic adhesives, so you will have to decide what carpeting best suits your needs and pocketbook.

Choosing an alternative fiber carpet will add a warm, natural feel to your home. These renewable carpets are stunning, practical, and provide a healthier indoor environment for your family. And while they do cost more than traditional carpet, they are more durable, higher in quality, and longer lasting than synthetics. They will enhance your home, stand up in high traffic areas, and let everyone breathe easier while making a positive choice for the environment. If you would like to view some hands-on samples of the above mentioned natural carpets, please give me a call at (650) 851-1700 ex. 11.

If you have a green building topic you would like explored further in an article on this web page, please feel free to provide me with your suggestions at cborck@portolavalley.net or via telephone.