What are Sustainable Carpets and What are the Benefits?

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James Miller
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy.
James Miller
Updated: April 11, 2024

Sustainable carpets are the perfect option if you want the aesthetics, warmth, and softness of wall-to-wall carpeting, without harming your health or the environment.

In this guide, I'll reveal some frightening pollution statistics that show why your choice of floor covering matters.

You'll also learn what sustainable carpet is, what it's made from, the pros and cons of buying it, and how to tell an eco-friendly carpet from one that is not.

Key Takeaways:

  • Sustainable carpets are made from natural or recycled materials.
  • Their production minimizes environmental impact using non-toxic dyes and renewable energy.
  • Benefits include increased durability, reduced waste, and lower indoor pollution from fewer VOCs.
  • Regular synthetic carpets are petroleum-based, will not biodegrade, and often contain harmful chemicals.
  • Certifications like Cradle to Cradle indicate true eco-friendly options.
  • Proper disposal of old carpets is crucial for environmental health.

What Makes a Carpet Sustainable?

rolls of carpet in pile

There are three main factors that make a carpet sustainable: the materials it's made from, the production process, and the end-of-life disposal plan:

  1. Materials: Sustainable carpets are crafted from materials that are either renewable, recycled, or capable of being regenerated. This may include natural, renewable, and biodegradable raw materials like wool and bamboo, or recycled goods such as plastic bottles, industrial nylon waste, fishing nets, and textile waste.
  2. Production Process: The manufacturing of sustainable carpets focuses on minimizing environmental impact by using non-toxic dyes, reducing water consumption, and reusing materials like yarn residues, cardboard cones, and pallets. It may also incorporate renewable energy sources to power the production process.
  3. End-of-Life and Certifications: A sustainable carpet's life cycle doesn't end after its use. There should be a clear plan for the carpet's disposal, by making it biodegradable or at least recyclable. Certifications such as Cradle to Cradle and the NSF/ANSI 140 Standard are important to look for, as they ensure the carpet meets strict sustainability criteria, from production to end-of-life.

Sustainable Carpet Materials

A carpet can be described as sustainable if it is made from materials that are either natural, renewable, and biodegradable or recycled. The following materials meet these criteria:

Natural and Renewable Fibers

  1. Wool: Known for its durability and air-purifying qualities, wool is 100% biodegradable and can decompose in soil and marine environments without leaving toxic residues.
  2. Bamboo: A fast-growing, pesticide-free resource, bamboo carpets and rugs are beautiful, durable, and easy to maintain.
  3. Cork: Harvested from the cork oak tree without harming the tree itself, cork is a soft, comfortable, and renewable material. It's predominantly used for floor tiles rather than wall-to-wall carpets, but they offer a similar soft and springy feel underfoot.
  4. Other Fibers: Hemp, corn leaves, jute, seagrass, and coir are also used in carpets and non-toxic area rugs because of their natural, renewable qualities.

Recycled Materials

  1. Plastic Bottles and Industrial Scraps: Carpets and rugs can be made from recycled materials like rPET offer stain resistance and help combat plastic waste..
  2. Discarded Fishing Nets and Textile Waste: Waste from clothing manufacturing or fishing nets can be spun into yarn and used for flooring. This helps reduce landfill waste and supports a circular economy.

By contrast, most regular carpets are made from man-made synthetic fibers such as nylon, polyester, or polypropylene.

Environmental Benefits of Choosing Sustainable Carpets

Eco-friendly carpeting options are, as the name would suggest, far better than synthetic alternatives from an environmental perspective. They have many of the same benefits of eco-friendly rugs, including:

  • Renewable Resources: Sustainable materials like bamboo, wool, or recycled plastics need less water and produce fewer emissions to grow or collect compared to the petroleum extraction needed for nylon or polyester.
  • Energy Efficiency: Producing natural floor coverings often involves processes that consume significantly less water and energy than those required for synthetics. For example, synthetic fibers require high temperatures to be extruded into yarn.
  • Longer Lifespan: Sustainable carpets are designed with durability in mind, using high-quality natural fibers that can withstand wear and tear over time. Synthetic carpets, especially lower quality ones, may wear out faster, leading to more frequent replacement and thus increased waste.
  • Closed Loop: When a natural fiber carpet reaches the end of its life, it can biodegrade or be repurposed, reducing landfill waste. Synthetic fibers, made from plastics, are not biodegradable and are challenging to recycle, often ending up in landfills where they persist for centuries.

Health Benefits of Eco-Friendly Carpets

Eco-friendly carpets offer significant health benefits, primarily due to their low emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and their ability to improve indoor air quality. Here's a detailed look at these advantages:

  • Reduced VOC Emissions: Petroleum-based fibers (particularly nylon and polypropylene rugs and carpets) can emit toxic and potentially harmful VOCs into the air in your home. The same goes for synthetic rubber backing on many carpets and rugs. Natural fibers do not contain VOCs.
  • Improved Indoor Air Quality: By trapping allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, and pollen, eco-friendly carpets reduce the presence of these particles in the air, leading to fewer allergic reactions.
  • Safety: Eco-friendly carpets don't shred or tear and provide better traction, decreasing the likelihood of falls or accidents.

The Environmental Impact of Traditional Synthetic Carpets

We've touched upon the environmental benefits of sustainable carpet, but these can only truly be understood in comparison to the harm done by traditional synthetic alternatives.
Here's a breakdown of the key issues:

Solid Waste Concerns

  • Over 4 billion pounds of carpet enter the U.S. solid waste stream annually, representing 1% by weight and 2% by volume of all municipal solid waste (MSW).
  • The bulky nature of carpet complicates its collection and handling for solid waste operations.
  • With nearly 12 billion square feet of carpet produced annually, 91% ends up in landfills, and only 5% is recycled.

Recycling Challenges

  • The variety of materials in carpet makes recycling difficult, requiring special processes due to their multiple parts and different chemical makeups.
  • Although there's existing demand for more than 90% of materials in recycled carpet, high costs deter recycling efforts.

Pollution and Health Risks

  • Carpets in landfills can leach harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, PFOA, and perchlorate into the water supply.
  • Incineration of carpets releases more greenhouse gases than coal and harmful substances like dioxin, mercury, and lead.

The statistics clearly underline the importance of making the right carpet choices.

When you come to replace your flooring, you need to make sure that you dispose of it in the most responsible way, and that your next purchase is an environmentally friendly one.

Certifications and Standards for Sustainable Carpets

The challenge for homeowners is how to identify which carpets are truly sustainable from those that are not (or only claim to be). The easiest and most reliable way to do this is by looking for products that carry the following eco-friendly carpet certifications:

Cradle to Cradle Certification:

This standard evaluates a carpet's sustainability across its entire lifecycle, focusing on material health, product circularity, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness. It's a rigorous certification indicating that a product meets stringent sustainability criteria.

NSF/ANSI 140 Certification

Specifically designed for commercial carpets and rugs, this certification assesses the environmental, economic, and social impacts of carpet products.

It focuses on reduced environmental impact in areas like landfill diversion, carbon dioxide emissions, and water usage. NSF/ANSI 140 is a comprehensive standard that supports manufacturers in demonstrating their commitment to sustainability.

Indoor Air Quality Certifications

  • Green Label Plus: Recognized by the U.S. EPA, this certification ensures that carpet, adhesive, and cushion products meet the highest standards for low VOC emissions, contributing to better indoor air quality.
  • Greenguard and Greenguard Gold: These certifications test for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other VOCs, with Greenguard Gold setting more stringent limits.

How to Properly Dispose of Your Old Carpets

Disposing of old carpets responsibly is crucial for minimizing environmental impact. Here are some options I would recommend:

Recycling Options

  • Carpet Installers: Many installers offer to remove and recycle the old carpet they replace. This is often the quickest and easiest method - just be sure to double-check exactly how it will be disposed of.
  • Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) is an organization dedicated to keeping old carpets out of landfill. Contact CARE to find recycling centers in your area.
  • Recycling Facilities: Your local recycling center may accept old carpet. However, I recommend you call ahead as some facilities may have specific requirements.

Donation and Reuse

  • Donate to Charity: New or unused carpet can be donated to local charities if it is in good condition.
  • Animal Shelters: Used carpets can be used to line kennels and cages. Contact your local shelter to see if they accept donations.

Disposal Services

  • Junk Removal Services: For a fee, these services will remove your carpet, but you need to confirm that they use environmentally friendly disposal methods.
  • Dumpster Rental: This is a last resort for disposing of large amounts or full rolls of carpet because using this method usually means they end up in landfill.

Remember, always check local regulations regarding carpet disposal to ensure compliance and consider the environmental impact of your disposal method.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Constitutes the Most Eco-Friendly Carpet Option?

The most eco-friendly carpet choice is wool carpeting, thanks to the natural, renewable cycle of wool growth from sheep. Vegans can opt for bamboo or recycled materials instead.

Can You Explain the Sustainable Carpet Standard?

The NSF/ANSI 140 standard is a voluntary guideline that assesses commercial carpet and rug products based on their environmental, economic, and social impacts throughout their entire lifecycle.

Which Carpet Type is Considered the Healthiest Option?

Wool carpets are regarded as the healthiest option as they are less likely to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are associated with synthetic fibers and can be hazardous to health.

The Final Word

Carpets made from synthetic fibers harm the environment and can affect your family's health. They may be (in some cases) cheap, but buying them is a false economy.

I'm not suggesting you rush out and change the flooring in your home straight away. Your existing floor covering, even if it's synthetic, should be retained for as long as it is still usable. Otherwise, you'll simply create more waste sooner than you need to.

However, when it does come time to replace worn carpets or remodel your home, I hope the information in this guide helps guide you toward a healthy and responsible choice.

Also, remember to dispose of old carpet or anything else you throw away responsibly. Out of sight shouldn't mean out of mind.

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James Miller
James Miller
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy.
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