Naturally Green - Aug/Sep 2012

By Darius Helm


Gauging the relative environmental footprints of the different flooring types is no easy task, and it’s not uncommon for some of the most fundamentally sustainable products to surrender the spotlight to those products that have made the most progress in reducing their environmental burdens. 

For instance, the flooring category that gets the most ink is carpet—a product made largely from oil, along with some natural gas—because it entered the environmental arena as the biggest offender but over the years has invested heavily in the development of a range of brilliant technologies that have served to vastly reduce its environmental footprint. These technologies, which are fundamental to the manufacturing process and often designed around hydrocarbon chemistries, have become essential tools in the greening of not just carpet but also a range of synthetic materials in everything from flooring to consumer goods, electronics and construction materials.

Meanwhile, sitting in the wings and largely obscured by carpet’s long shadow is a raft of products ranging from wool all the way to ceramic tile that have always had much smaller environmental footprints. Most are bio-based and rapidly renewable, while others owe their low impact to lifecycles that exceed by far the lifecycles of synthetics. Such products include bamboo, cork, wool, linoleum, eucalyptus, hardwoods in general, ceramic and porcelain tile, and terrazzo.

At the top of the list are, arguably, cork and bamboo. They’re both bio-based and they’re also both rapidly renewable—around four to five years for bamboo and closer to eight or nine for cork. On top of that, they both have fairly long lifecycles. There are plenty of examples of cork floors dating back to the middle of the last century, and bamboo, which has an average Janka hardness rating above that of oak (and strand woven bamboo goes even higher), will likely last just as long, but it simply hasn’t been around for that many years, at least in terms of mainstream production.

A long lifecycle offers a couple of key environmental attributes. The obvious one is that the longer a product lasts, the less material has to be used to make a new product. The other attribute, largely unique to cellulose-based products, is carbon sequestration. Products with high carbon content are essentially keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, and thus playing a direct role in reducing the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The longer they last, the greater their carbon sequestration.

The argument can be made that hardwoods like oak, maple, cherry and other North American species should be included in the same discussion. After all, not only do they sequester carbon and have long lifecycles, but they’re produced in the U.S., thereby averting the environmental burden of being shipped across oceans. 

It’s certainly true that hardwoods, particularly those that are responsibly harvested, are fundamentally green products with many of the same attributes. However, bamboo and cork have a couple of key advantages, the most prominent being that they’re rapidly renewable. Also significant is their higher rate of carbon sequestration. When hardwood is harvested, the entire tree is cut down, generally leaving the root system to decompose and release its carbon—which in and of itself is not a bad thing. But in the case of bamboo, which is technically a grass, the root system remains, sprouting more bamboo—in a certain sense, it’s closer to mowing a lawn than felling trees. Bamboo producer Teragren calculates that each pound of harvested bamboo actually removes 1.67 pounds of carbon because of the continuity of the root system. In the case of cork, not just the root system but the entire tree remains after harvest, since only the bark is removed. Also, most cork flooring is derived from what is arguably a waste product, what’s left over from the manufacture of cork bottle stoppers.

While hardwood trees take decades to grow tall enough for harvest profitably—oak trees offer the best yields and best value after they’re 70 years old—there is one species with a Janka hardness rating sufficient for hardwood flooring that can be harvested in about 15 years, and that’s eucalyptus. Brazilian eucalyptus has been sold in the U.S. market for about a decade under the Lyptus brand. Even though its environmental footprint is a lot lower than traditional hardwoods, it doesn’t get recognized as a “rapidly renewable” product because of the somewhat arbitrary ten-year designation.

Perhaps the biggest issue for end users considering cork or bamboo is the fact that product is shipped great distances for sale in the U.S. market. Bamboo travels across the Pacific Ocean from China, and cork crosses the Atlantic from Europe (most cork comes from Portugal). And while it’s a valid criticism of the products, it’s worth noting that shipping by container vessels is the most efficient form of transport available. According to the Network for Transport and the Environment, the same energy that will carry a unit of product five miles by truck or 15 miles by diesel train can carry that product from 55 to over 70 miles by container vessel. To put it another way, 100 miles by land (trucking) is equivalent to well over 1,000 miles by sea.

For that very reason, Teragren, whose products are manufactured in China through an exclusive partnership, will transport its products by ocean vessels to both the West and East coasts (rather than serve East Coast customers by shipping overland from the West). And about 80% of its ocean cargo is shipped by Clean Cargo member carriers, which offer the lowest carbon footprint option by maximizing load capacity and speed.

Once on land, 70% of Teragren’s products make at least 50% of their journey by rail, which uses about a quarter of the fuel of other overland methods. And all trucking is done with SmartWay Transport members, whose focus is on efficient, low impact trucking.

The founders of Teragren, Ann and David Knight, recently launched a new venture called Resource Fiber that may well transform the entire bamboo industry in North America. The firm’s goal is to create commercial bamboo farming operations in the U.S., and its initial focus is on the Alabama Black Belt region, which is both an ideal climate for growing bamboo and also one of the most economically depressed regions in the country. A few years from now, Moso bamboo from Alabama will be used in the production of Teragren flooring, and it will be hard to get a product greener than that.

For the foreseeable future, cork will continue to be harvested from Europe and shipped across the Atlantic. Shipping from Europe to the East Coast is less than half the distance of shipping from China to the West Coast. One of the leading U.S. cork companies, Expanko, gets all of its cork from Portugal. Like Teragren with its bamboo, the firm focuses on transporting its cork in larger single volumes to lower its footprint. 

Expanko, based in Exton, Pennsylvania, is also known for its Reztec flooring, which is made of 100% post-consumer and post-industrial rubber, as well as XCR4, a blend of cork and recycled rubber. More recently, the firm introduced a cork line called Heirloom, a 1/2” thick product, which is the same thickness as the classic cork floors from the first half of the 20th century. The line also comes in the same three classic colorations, and it’s already in high demand in historic buildings like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Harvard Law Library. 

Another prominent cork producer is Capri Cork, which actually sources its cork from Italy. Like Expanko, Capri also offers cork and rubber blends, like Re-Tire Medley, as well as pure recycled rubber products. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania based firm offers both gluedown options and a click system licensed through Unilin. This fall, the firm is adding to its click system offering.

Other significant cork firms include Wicanders, US Floors and WE Cork. US Floors actually produces a range of rapidly renewable bio-based products, including cork and bamboo, as well as several notable hardwood lines. US Floors even offers an innovative vinyl-cork combo called Vinacork with an LVT top layer, a cork middle layer and an HDF base. Harris Wood also recently announced that it is now offering cork flooring. 

While many of the large hardwood firms offer bamboo lines, there are, like Teragren, several bamboo specialists, including Smith & Fong, a commercial specialist under the Plyboo brand that also makes product from palm trees, Dasso, Bamboo Hardwoods and many others. Home Legend offers bamboo, cork, laminate floor, hardwood and luxury vinyl.

The other major cellulosic bio-based product is linoleum, one of the most ingenious floorcoverings ever invented. The product was invented about 150 years ago in England by Frederick Walton, and its basic ingredients, all natural, are linseed oil and wood flour bound with pine rosin with limestone filler and generally backed with jute.

Today the biggest linoleum producer in the world is Swiss-based Forbo, with facilities in the Netherlands and Scotland. While there used to be U.S. production, all linoleum is now made in Europe, so shipping’s contribution to linoleum’s environmental footprint is similar to that of cork. 

In addition to linoleum, Forbo manufactures vinyl flooring, entrance matting system and Flotex, a flocked nylon product with a waterproof backing, along with a small carpet tile offering not sold in the U.S. However, linoleum, under the Marmoleum brand, accounts for about 80% of the firm’s flooring sales.

While Forbo offers one of the greenest products on the market, the firm is working hard to further reduce its environmental footprint. Using 2009 as a baseline, Forbo has set a goal of a 25% overall reduction in environmental impact by 2015. So far, it has made great strides in energy reduction, with almost all of its facilities now running on renewable energy. Also, the firm intends to have EPDs on all of its flooring products by the end of this year. 

Both Tarkett and Armstrong also have extensive linoleum offerings with a full range of colors and designs. Forbo, Armstrong and Tarkett dominate the U.S. linoleum business.

There’s one other significant bio-based flooring product, and that’s wool, used as face fiber for carpets and rugs. In the U.S., the wool business is dominated by British and New Zealand wool. While synthetic fibers dominate the U.S. soft surface industry, wool still accounts for about 4% of the volume. Sheep are generally shorn for their wool about once a year, yielding approximately four inches of fleece. It’s then cleaned and spun into staple fiber. 

Wool is a hardy fiber, with better appearance retention than synthetics like nylon—it tends to bounce back while synthetics will flatten. Wool carpets and rugs will generally last at least a few decades under moderate foot traffic before starting to wear thin, but well preserved wool rugs can last hundreds of years.

The energy required to make wool also adds to its sustainability profile. All you need is sheep, grass, water and air. According to Wools of New Zealand, it generally takes about six times more energy to make a unit weight of nylon compared to wool.

Also, the end of life scenario is much better for wool. While it will endure for a long time in an indoor environment, it biodegrades fairly readily in landfills. And in general wool fibers from reputable sources use environmentally friendly dyes. Current chemistries transfer all the dye from the water into the fiber, enabling the reuse of the water.

There’s another class of products that are naturally sourced, and their environmental profile is largely due to their incredible durability—namely ceramic tile, terrazzo and natural stone. While not sourced from organic matter, these products use material that is abundant in nature, and the floors created from them don’t really have an expiration date. Examples of ceramic tile, for instance, date back to the beginnings of human history, and they’ll likely last as long as the earth itself.

Realistically, only a small percentage of these flooring types actually endure for millennia or even centuries. Flooring is a fashion business, and after a while just about any floor will be replaced by something more suitable to the aesthetics of the times. Even in the U.S., where ceramic tile design is conservative and largely limited to earth tone stone looks, there comes a time when a rustic beige tile is destined for the dump. But unlike synthetics, landfilled tile and stone are environmentally neutral. 

Like bio-based materials, ceramic, stone and terrazzo use negligible petroleum derivatives and much of their environmental burden comes from the energy used in the manufacturing process and in transportation. Ceramics, including porcelain, are largely made of clay and feldspar, while terrazzo can use a range of aggregates, including marble chips, bound in a cementitious or epoxy medium. It can be argued that natural stone comes with the highest environmental burden, since quarrying is a necessary method for generating product, to the potential detriment of the environment. 

While producers of synthetic materials like carpet and vinyl flooring put a heavy emphasis on the greening of the product itself, ceramic tile producers focus more on process, like reducing energy and water use and eliminating waste. However, the largest privately owned U.S. firm, Crossville, has also been recycling tile for the last three years. Since 2009, the firm has recycled more than four million pounds of fired tile that in the past would have gone to landfills, and has also reclaimed about 160,000 pounds of post-consumer tile from tile renovation projects, yielding more than 140,000 square feet of tile with post-consumer content.

Last year, Crossville partnered with Toto USA, which manufactures plumbing products including toilets and baths, to recycle and reuse its fired porcelain waste. Between the two programs, Crossville has diverted over 11 million pounds of fired porcelain from landfills. Today, all of Crossville’s U.S. manufactured products contain at least 20% recycled content, both post-consumer and post-industrial. Furthermore, all of those products have achieved Green Squared certification. Green Squared, developed by the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), is a multi-attribute lifecycle based sustainability program.

Daltile, the largest U.S. ceramic tile producer, has facilities in both the U.S. and Mexico, and it has been modifying most of those facilities to make them more sustainable. The facility in Muskogee, Oklahoma, which makes color-body porcelain, now reuses fired tile waste as well as post-consumer glass. The facility in Monterrey, Mexico reuses waste water from an off-site sanitary sewage treatment facility. Its quarry tile facility in Fayette, Alabama uses roof-mounted evaporative coolers to recapture water from the humid air and use it in the extrusion process. And the facilities in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Olean, New York make mosaics using over 40% post-industrial recycled material content in the manufacturing process.

Daltile, which is a subsidiary of Mohawk, also recently announced its participation in the TCNA’s Green Squared program, with certification of almost all of its product lines.

Florida Tile, which makes porcelain at its Lawrenceburg, Kentucky facility, has had an environmental engineer on staff since the 1970s, when it was still producing tile in Florida. The firm, purchased by Italy’s Panaria Group in 2006, recycles just about everything related to its product. Dust collectors channel material back into tile, water is cleaned and reused in production, and both fired and unfired porcelain goes back into its product. All told, there’s 40% post-industrial content used in the manufacture of every product at the facility, third-party certified by Bureau Veritas.

In addition, all of Florida Tile’s products made in the U.S. have Green Squared certification, and they’re also Greenguard certified for indoor air quality. Florida Tile has also partnered with EcoScorecard, which allows clients to easily calculate contributions to green programs like LEED.

Marazzi USA, which is part of Italy’s Marazzi Group, is also looking at various ways of reducing its environmental impact. In Italy, the firm has developed a system for the collection and reuse of waste water, production waste and even heat generated from the production process. In the U.S. the firm is pursuing Green Squared certification, which it should have by the end of the year.

When it comes to terrazzo, a lot of what is out there in the commercial market is poured in place, and there are many commercial buildings in the U.S. with terrazzo floors dating back to the early 20th century. There are even some primitive installations dating back several thousand years. These days, most installations are epoxy terrazzo, which installs faster than cementitious terrazzo, is lighter weight, more flexible, and offers more color options. However, for outdoor applications, cementitious terrazzo performs better.

Earlier this year, cork producer Expanko acquired Fritztile, one of the few producers of terrazzo tile. The Mesquite, Texas based firm, which has been making terrazzo for over 50 years, uses an inert polyester resin as a binder. All of its products feature at least 75% post-industrial content (largely quarry waste), along with some post-consumer content from reclaimed glass. Water used in the process is filtered and reused. According to the firm, its products are less than half the price of poured-in-place terrazzo, and are competitive with porcelain. All of its products are FloorScore certified.

Copyright 2012 Floor Focus