Bio-Based Flooring Alternatives: From linoleum to cork and bamboo - Jun 2016

By Calista Sprague

Cork, bamboo and linoleum are recognized mainly for their compelling green stories—all made mostly of natural, rapidly renewable resources—but unfortunately, green stories do not generate sales. Less recognized but even more compelling are the unique performance attributes that further differentiate them from their competitors. Sales in recent years, however, do not reflect the distinct benefits these products bring to the market. The shared hurdle in the battle for marketshare is a surprising one: each suffers from perception issues. 

Despite the longevity of these green flooring options in the U.S., ranging from bamboo’s 25 years to cork and linoleum’s 100 years or more, surveys show that consumers, for the most part, are unaware of the benefits—and in some cases even the existence—of these specialty products. Myths stemming from substandard commodity goods, improper installation techniques and consumer confusion have unfairly hurt the categories as well. For all three flooring types, suppliers agree that education in the marketplace provides the clearest path to growth.

Cork flooring has been around for more than a century, and the U.S. supply is wholly imported, mainly from Portugal and Spain, where cork oak trees grow in abundance. The world’s largest consumer of cork flooring per capita is Germany, where it’s considered a traditional flooring material. The European cork flooring market in general is much stronger than in the U.S., partially due to proximity to the raw material. Also, Europeans tend to be more ecologically minded, often searching out greener alternatives.

Prior to the plastics era, cork flooring was mainly popular in U.S. kitchens and playrooms, preferred for its comfort underfoot. In the institutional sector it was often specified for libraries and museums, where it was prized for its acoustical properties. 

No-wax sheet vinyl and wall-to-wall carpet became popular mid century, especially in the U.S., and cork flooring, which required regular waxing, fell out of favor in the residential market. Today’s cork flooring offers the option of a polyurethane coating, greatly minimizing maintenance, and it can once again be found in both residential and commercial settings. 

With the addition of polyurethane, cork made its biggest strides in the U.S. market before the Great Recession, reaching a high of $32.3 million in 2008, according to Market Insights. “Those were the heydays of cork flooring because everybody was talking about the eco movement at the time,” the COO of US Floors, Philippe Erramuzpe, recalls. “And consumers were reluctantly willing to pay a small premium for greener products.” 

An $8 million dollar drop for the category the following year prompted the Portuguese Cork Association to lead a coordinated marketing blitz that helped mitigate the effects of the recession, but sales have continued to gradually slide, with significant drops for the past two years. Adding to the category’s difficulties, the new darling of resilient, LVT, has become a fierce competitor that continues to gain ground, used for many of the same applications as cork.

Cork, however, offers many benefits to end users. With 200 million closed air pockets per cubic inch, cork is often chosen for its ability to absorb sound. It is especially suitable in multi-story homes and in multi-family buildings or commercial settings where noise or sound transference is a concern. 

Its air pockets also lend a natural elasticity and resilience to the product. “Kitchens traditionally have been the most popular places for cork,” explains Ann Wicander, president of WE Cork. “You’re literally walking on air when you walk on a cork floor, giving you comfort underfoot. And when you’re in a kitchen, you’re going to be standing most of the time.”

The trapped air also gives cork thermal insulating properties, making it a good choice for basements, bedrooms and anywhere else cold floors pose a problem. In fact, the thermal properties are so strong, cork is also used as wall insulation.

All three attributes—acoustical, resilient and thermal—have made cork a common choice for flooring underlayments as well. Produced with a special binder to better withstand moisture, cork underlayments can be installed under hardwood and other resilients. It can even be utilized under ceramic tile to mitigate cracking. Cork underlayment is also a third lighter than rubber, important in installations where weight is an issue.

As if all these benefits were not enough, cork contains a substance called suberin, a waxy cell coating that acts as a natural insect repellent. It is also a natural fire inhibitor and is naturally antimicrobial. Much like a hardwood floor, a cork floor can be stained and refinished, and if maintained properly, can last a lifetime.

Among all these benefits lurk a few drawbacks to cork. The polyurethane finish is similar to that for hardwood, so it can be scratched and gouged. Also cork is sensitive to moisture, performing best in spaces where the humidity is controlled. Light affects cork, too, fading the color in direct sunlight. And like most resilients, cork is prone to indentation from heavy loads. 

In addition to these legitimate issues, instances have occurred when cork with improper binders and too low density ratings has been used as an underlayment and ultimately failed. The competition capitalized, damaging cork’s reputation.

U.S. suppliers have worked to combat cork’s market objections through product positioning and innovation. To help the category compete with modular flooring programs, manufacturers created engineered cork planks with click systems for floating floors. An HDF core is sandwiched between two layers of cork, and the top layer provides the cork visual along with the comfort under foot, while the bottom layer helps absorb sound and minimizes the effects from subfloor imperfections. 

More recently, digital printing has been adopted in cork production. Previously, cork visuals were limited, but with digital printing, just like ceramic tile, cork can now take on the appearance of any other material while preserving all of its inherent benefits. 

Wicander reports that printed cork has found new favor with designers who value customization. They can utilize the new technology to create one-of-a-kind floors for their clients in areas where ceramic tile might not be appropriate. Printed cork is especially well suited to retail and other commercial spaces where branding is an important design element. In addition to infinite visual options, printed cork will not fade in direct sunlight, eliminating yet another objection to cork.

New coatings for cork flooring have been developed as well. WE Cork, for example, now promotes a finish on its printed line that has an abrasion rating of AC5, outperforming most LVT products, which typically rate at AC3 or AC4. “If you combine that wearlayer with cork’s performance benefits and the green story, it’s a very attractive package,” says Wicander. And, she points out, the cost is only slightly higher than commercial LVT.

The new wearlayer, coupled with the digital printing, has opened up new business for cork in the commercial market, especially in the hospitality and retail sectors. “It becomes a serious contender for commercial applications, especially if the designers need LEED points,” Wicander says.

On the residential front, US Floors is positioning its cork as an alternative to hardwood or carpet for bedroom floors. Consumers are moving to hard surfaces throughout the house, but bedrooms have remained carpet holdouts, since many people prefer the warmth and comfort underfoot that carpet provides. 

Erramuzpe says that cork floors can give consumers the ease of maintenance and style of a hard surface with the warmth and softness of cork. “It makes sense for the bedroom,” he explains. “Cork is a soft resilient that is warm to the touch as well. It has acoustic insulating capacity, which is important since bedrooms are generally upstairs.” 

With so many of its weaknesses addressed, cork’s final hurdle lies in raising awareness. “The mainstream residential customer still doesn’t know that cork is a flooring product, not just something you pull out of your wine bottle,” says Wicander.

Wicander and Erramuzpe view education as the main mission both for their individual companies and the cork industry as a whole. They see great potential for cork to take marketshare, but distributors and salespeople need to be trained to offer it as an option rather than waiting for consumers to ask for it. And consumers need to be educated about the many benefits that cork flooring has to offer.

Bamboo is a relative newcomer to the market, introduced internationally in the early 1990s and common in the U.S. market by the end of the decade. The product is manufactured almost exclusively in China, where Moso bamboo is an indigenous species. Today the U.S. is the largest outlet for the bamboo industry by volume, although per capita, the Australian market is actually larger. 

Along with the overall industry, bamboo flooring sales took a hit in the recession, but the biggest blow actually came from mass retail. Traditional bamboo flooring, with its telltale slats and knuckles readily visible, was once a thriving product in the U.S. market, but a pricing war among major mass retailers commoditized the product so severely that now there is little to no profit to be made from it. “You can buy it cheaper than a manmade laminate, which doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Erramuzpe. “And that’s why retail leaders today do not even want to try to compete any more.”

In 2006, strand-woven bamboo, also called strand bamboo, was introduced to the market and helped rejuvenate the category. Akin to wood oriented strand board (OSB), the bamboo slats are sliced into smaller pieces and a binder is used to adhere the strands together. Unlike OSB, however, the strands are adhered in a single direction. The resulting visuals are similar to hardwood.

“Strand-woven has the advantage of a very exotic look, almost like a tigerwood,” explains Erramuzpe. “It takes stain very well, so it makes a beautiful floor.” The new visuals were a major departure from the traditional look, and consumers responded positively, willing to pay more for the premium products, which on average are still lower than hardwood price points. 

Strand bamboo is also harder than traditional bamboo, because the strips are compressed at a very high pressure, creating a much denser material. High-quality strand-woven bamboo, whether solid or engineered, ranks high on the Janka hardness scale, in some cases outperforming even Brazilian cherry. High quality traditional bamboo is less hard, but can still outrank oak, ash or maple. 

The vast majority of bamboo flooring sold in the U.S. is strand bamboo, although a small commodity market still exists for traditional bamboo, mainly sold through mass retailers. Home centers have garnered much of the marketshare for strand bamboo as well, to the detriment of independent dealers who, suppliers report, are beginning to shy away from the category.

Bamboo is installed mainly in residential settings, although much like hardwood, it finds niche use in lighter commercial settings such as boutique retail, higher end restaurants and statement spaces in hotels and corporate offices.

Suppliers offer both solid and engineered bamboo, so the flooring can be floated, nailed or glued down. Most bamboo comes with a polyurethane finish, but some manufacturers also offer an aluminum oxide option for additional scratch resistance. 

Bamboo suppliers position their products in the market as a greener, less expensive alternative to hardwood with unique visuals. US Floors, for example, displays both its bamboo and cork in a single display titled Sustainable Living, and like with cork, the company is focusing efforts on educating salespeople to offer bamboo as an alternate hard surface option. The company is also putting more energy into promotion of its engineered bamboo, since the product is more dimensionally stable and less prone to failures than solid strand.

With the popularity of hardwood, it would stand to reason that bamboo might be even more popular, since it performs as well or better than hardwood in the same environments for a substantially lower price point and with a stronger green story. However, the bamboo industry has hit a few snags along the path to marketshare growth. Like the cork industry, it has developed a perception issue. 

Bamboo flooring has suffered setbacks with performance problems that stem mainly from a lack of quality control across the industry and secondarily from installation issues. There are numerous bamboo mills in China, producing everything from high quality product that may last a lifetime down to low grade product with serious performance issues that may fail soon after it is laid. 

Pricing pressures, especially from mass retailers, have motivated some mills to take shortcuts in the manufacturing process, shortening the drying period, the time needed to absorb the binder or the time for the planks to stabilize at the end of the process. Shortening any one of these steps can cause a bamboo floor to fail, and some commodity manufacturers are speeding up the process to bring down costs. In addition, they may 

substitute a low-grade binder, causing potential performance issues, as well as possible problems with toxic emissions. 

Even high quality bamboo flooring must be installed properly to perform successfully. More so than hardwood, bamboo is affected by humid and dry conditions. It must be acclimated properly, and it must be installed in appropriate areas of a home or business where humidity and moisture can be controlled. It also must be given proper expansion joints, since, like hardwood, bamboo expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity. 

Because many bamboo floors have failed due to poor manufacturing or installation practices, the material’s reputation has been tarnished. Many American suppliers source from reputable manufacturers, and some even dictate and oversee every step of the operation, beginning with when the plants are harvested. However, the average consumer is likely unaware of the disparity in products from one manufacturer to the next. 

Suppliers are working to encourage consumers to search out bamboo products from reputable producers to ensure performance rather than shop for the lowest price and risk disappointment. They are also working to educate installers on proper installation techniques to minimize failures. 

With his invention of linoleum in 1860, Londoner Frederick Walton became the founding father of the resilient category. The product became popular in Europe and eventually the U.S., especially for kitchens and baths, where it repelled water and provided comfort underfoot, performance attributes no previous flooring offered. Healthcare environments were particularly suited to linoleum due to its inherent antimicrobial properties, so its use in the commercial market spread as well.

As with cork, marketshare loss for linoleum began after WWII with the advent of no-wax sheet vinyl. At the time, the colors for vinyl were more vivid than linoleum and maintenance was minimized. But even stronger than consumer preferences were the manufacturers’ drive for profits. 

The manufacture of linoleum is a slow process compared to vinyl production. Forbo North America’s general manager Denis Darragh explains, “If you give me raw PVC pellets, four to six hours later I can give you finished vinyl flooring product. If you give me linseed oil and pine rosin, ten to 12 weeks later I can give you a linoleum product. So to a manufacturer, that’s all working capital, tied up, sitting around doing nothing.” 

In addition, the factories are huge. Production lines are five to nine linear miles compared to one or two for vinyl. The oversized facilities are more expensive to run, and the start-up costs can be six-fold that for a vinyl plant. “That’s why no other linoleum facilities have popped up; there’s a huge barrier to entry, ” he says. Vinyl plants, however, continue to proliferate, especially with the increasing popularity of LVT. 

In the mid 1990s, linoleum began a slow and steady comeback, especially in the commercial market, reaching a high of $55.7 million in 2011, according to Market Insights, although sales have slid since, following the slowdown in the healthcare sector. 

The only truly global market for linoleum is in the healthcare sector. “You’ll find it in healthcare everywhere around the world,” Darragh says, “whether it’s developing markets or mature markets.” Education is the second largest sector for linoleum, and may even be the largest by volume. 

Linoleum’s resurgence was jumpstarted by its sustainability story and then bolstered by the rediscovery of inherent attributes by designers and consumers and by a few modern innovations. Most recently, conversations about health concerns have been helping to strengthen linoleum sales. 

One of linoleum’s forgotten benefits is durability. Even in commercial environments like hospitals, linoleum floors can last for 30 years when properly maintained. Unlike heterogenous vinyl sheet flooring, linoleum’s color goes all the way through the material, minimizing scuffs and minor scratches. A finish coat should be reapplied one to four times a year, depending on the amount of foot traffic, but otherwise linoleum is easy to maintain with regular damp mopping and a mild cleaner for stubborn soil. 

Darragh says that a flooring’s green story, while important, is more of a qualifier in the marketplace than a differentiator. “Health, however,” he says, “is a differentiator.” 

Linoleum is among the healthiest flooring categories. It’s made of organic materials, so it emits no toxins into the air. It is, and has always been, phthalate free. And its inherent antimicrobial properties make it a particularly good fit for the healthcare and education markets. To fight staph and other infections, vinyl flooring in healthcare settings is often treated with antimicrobial additives, which contain either pesticides or heavy metals and may pose a health threat to employees who experience long-term exposure. 

To help the category better compete with VCT, LVT and rubber, suppliers like Forbo and Armstrong have developed modular linoleum tiles. The systems offer a variety of formats that can be arranged in a myriad of patterns and have been well received by designers, who appreciate the expanded design options. Today’s linoleum also sports vivid colors and curling, flowing patterns, a step up from the subdued tones of linoleum’s early days. 

Linoleum’s main hurdle to growth is to delineate the multiple differences between linoleum and vinyl in the minds of consumers. So strong is the conflation of the two categories that some consumers—and even some industry professionals—use the names interchangeably, as if they were synonymous. 

Suppliers of linoleum are working to reeducate flooring professionals, specifiers and consumers about the unique attributes of linoleum, especially its health benefits. At the same time, they must dispel outdated notions about the product, mainly that the once drab colorways and oldfashioned designs have been replaced with vibrant colors and more sophisticated modern visuals. 

Cork is one of the greenest flooring options available. It begins with the hand harvesting of renewable bark every nine to 11 years from cork oak trees. The trees live an average of 250 years in Mediterranean countries, especially Portugal.

The bark is first used to produce cork stoppers, mainly for wine bottles, and then the waste is ground and sent to flooring manufacturers to produce cork flooring. 

Even the cork dust is collected to become an ingredient in linoleum, among other applications. The outer layer of the bark is not suitable for flooring, but it is often burned as fuel for the manufacturing process, so even it doesn’t go to waste. 

Bamboo, technically a grass, is indigenous to and most prevalent in China. The Moso variety is typically used for flooring, and a plant can reach 80 feet tall and 6” in diameter in just four to six years. After harvesting, new shoots spring up from the original roots, negating the need for replanting.

Only the first eight feet of the hollow bamboo stalk is hard enough for flooring production. The remainder is utilized to make rugs, furniture and other items. Any unused portion is ground into a pulp to make fiber for clothing, blankets and other textiles, similar to the process for making rayon. 

Industry leaders like US Floors specify non-toxic binders to ensure low VOC emissions in their flooring. However, not all bamboo products are created equal. Some of the less reputable Chinese mills use low quality binders that may contain toxic substances for unhealthy levels of VOC emissions. 

For 150 years, linoleum has been made from a concoction of renewable, organic materials: linseed oil, pine rosin, wood flour and cork dust, some of which come from post-manufacturing waste. This natural ingredient list results in flooring that boasts extremely low VOC emissions and negligible toxicity. 

Linoleum is also naturally antimicrobial. The oxidation process of the linseed oil and pine rosin continues throughout the life of the flooring, consuming oxygen at the flooring’s surface. Without oxygen, microbes cannot survive. 

The largest ecological impact from these green products comes from the fuels burned in transport from overseas. However, cork’s extremely low density helps minimize its footprint compared to heavier materials.  

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring