by Nadine Samwell

Carpets can be both soft underfoot and hard on the environment. They can also be hard on the indoor air quality of your home due to the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic chemicals.

A widely loved flooring favourite for its warmth, comfort and insulating qualities in bedrooms and living areas, carpets are a complicated material and tricky to get right. Carpet is made up of a system of layers and those layers are bound together with adhesives. For example there is the face fibre, backing, underlay or cushion and adhesives and each of those elements is made of a multitude of materials. The more complex a material is, the more difficult it is to make sure all those elements are sustainable and healthy.

Problems with carpets

Traditionally, there are two categories of materials – natural or synthetic. Natural fibres in the past have mostly been wool, however there are lots of other options in the market nowadays. Synthetic carpets are usually nylon and polypropylene which are made from petroleum and can emit VOCs. Both natural and synthetic carpets can use energy intensive manufacturing processes.

Hidden from our view is the carpet backing and underlay. Synthetic rubber and foam backing are commonly used, which are made from petrochemicals and will emit higher VOC emissions than a more natural backing, such as jute fibre or felt backing. These natural backing options are better for the environment and your health, but they aren’t yet as hardwearing as the synthetic options.

Adhesives are used during the installation of carpet and this can contain toxic chemicals which will off-gas into your home, so always ensure you ask about low VOC and non-toxic installation methods

Finally, carpets are often treated with stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-microbial or waterproofing chemicals. Typically, anything which offers a health benefit or claim will contain a lot of chemicals which may not be good for your health or the environment so avoid these if you’ve got the option.

An important consideration when we’re choosing flooring, which is often overlooked, is how we plan on using it. It may sound like a weird consideration because you probably assume we only walk on flooring, but this isn’t the case. Because carpet is so soft and comfortable, we often sit on it and we let our little ones lay on it or play on it. This is an important factor to consider because the closer we get to a material, the more likely we will absorb or inhale the chemicals which may be within them.

What are sustainable carpets

There are two different types of sustainable carpets.

Firstly, there are carpets that are made from sustainable raw materials. Some examples of these materials are wool, hemp, bamboo, jute, seagrass, coir and even corn leaves. These raw materials are typically natural and renewable fibres that are biodegradable. Plus they often don’t require any, or as much, fertilisers and pesticides to produce.

The second type of sustainable carpets are the carpets manufactured from recycled materials such as plastic bottles, industrial scraps, used carpeting, discarded fishing nets or textile waste from clothing manufacturing. The great thing about this carpet type is that it reuses materials which would have been destined for landfill, and gives them the chance to have a second life.

Did you know that it can take carpet up to 50 years before it breaks down in landfill? While it’s going through this long process it is releasing greenhouse gasses. Some components of synthetic carpets will never completely break down.

While we’re speaking about landfill, let’s take a look at what we can do with carpet once it’s worn out or we no longer want it. Carpet isn’t as durable as other flooring options so it won’t last forever, but if we can recycle it, like I mentioned earlier, then it becomes a much more sustainable material. And we may be able to stop it from being thrown into landfill. There is a growing list of sustainable carpet manufacturers who are considering the entire lifecycle of their products and they offer take-back schemes so they can recycle old carpets to create new.

Carpet is a challenging material to recycle because it’s made up of many, many components and these components must be separated before they can be reused. So it’s always best to look for a carpet which is made from simple materials which can easily be separated and recycled.

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