What are the environmental issues with regard to flooring?

Today’s choice of floor covering is almost limitless – hard or soft, natural, synthetic or recycled, and in any colour or design imaginable. Selecting affordable and appropriate flooring for the location and amount of wear involved are obviously immediate priorities, but there are other issues to consider, such as the environmental impact of your purchasing decision in the short, medium and long term. This guide looks at some of the environmental impacts associated with flooring in order that life-cycle issues can be factored into the decision-making process.

Chart 1 – Environmental life cycle issues associated with flooring

Raw materials, extraction and manufacturing

  • Over the past decade, manufacturers and suppliers generally have become much more environmentally and socially aware, largely because of external pressure (including that exerted by consumers). Ask your supplier if there is an environmental life-cycle analysis of the flooring product and whether it has any specific environmental credentials or drawbacks. Just because a product is natural does not mean it has been sustainably produced or that it has not been treated with chemicals. Some products are now certified as environmentally preferable or carry an ecolabel or other certification, which can help in making an appropriate choice.
  • Consider the product’s country of origin and the distance travelled to get the raw materials to the manufacturer and the finished product to the supplier and end-user.
  • Use of flooring with recycled content helps to strengthen the viability of recycled markets. Recycled content may be post-industrial or post-consumer waste or a percentage of both.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be present in the materials used during manufacture and in adhesives. They have been linked with allergy and other indoor air quality issues, especially in well-insulated buildings that have minimal natural ventilation. Formaldehyde ‘offgassing’, particularly in some wood products, can be a problem. Find out as much as possible about all the constituents of the product before purchasing.
  • If possible avoid flooring products that contain chlorinated/brominated paraffins, halogenated flame retardants, organic tin compounds, phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers or products containing cadmium, lead or mercury. Also avoid products made with dyes that shed carcinogenic aryl amines.
  • Some floor-covering manufacturers treat their products with an anti-microbial treatment. Whilst this helps to inhibit the growth of bacteria or fungi, particularly in humid locations, it is important to check what chemicals have been used.
  • Ask your supplier whether the manufacturing process includes processes to minimise waste through recovery, reuse or reprocessing or use of waste for energy.
  • Ask whether the manufacturer offsets the carbon emissions created by the product’s manufacture or uses electricity generated by renewable sources.
  • Consider the cost of the product throughout its entire lifetime, not just the initial purchase price. Flooring that requires few or no chemicals to clean, is easy to maintain and retains its properties and appearance over time may be cheaper in the long-term.

Case Study: Scandic
Scandic began putting wooden flooring into its 130 hotels in Northern Europe in the mid-1990s purely on environmental grounds. Today over 16,000 of its 23,000 rooms in ten countries have wooden floors.

The introduction of Scandic's ‘ecoRoom’ concept in 1996 set the environmental standard for wooden flooring for hotels throughout the Nordic region. The knowledge gained from ten years’ experience of finding more sustainable ways to build and refurbish hotels is evidenced in Scandic's Standards for Environmental Construction (SERECS).

Scandic is currently evaluating a move to using eco-labelled wood which has been certified by third parties such as the Nordic Swan or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to guarantee that the material is not only renewable but also produced in a sustainable manner.

Transportation and delivery

  • Where possible think ‘local’ when sourcing stone, granite, slate etc. as these have considerable embodied energy in terms of their extraction and transportation. This is also important for forested products and locally manufactured flooring.
  • Ask how much packaging the product needs in order to protect it and whether the supplier will take back waste packaging.

Chart 2 – Flooring types and their environmental impacts 

  Raw materials, extraction,
manufacturing and processing
Transportation and
Fitting, use, maintenance,
Refurbishment, disposal,
reuse or recycling
Bamboo Fast growing grass. With selective annual harvesting it can regenerate completely. Cut and milled into thin strips which are laminated to form a
veneer or pressed into planks
Most commercial
growing is in China
Does not shrink, swell, bow, twist, cup or bend. Hard-wearing, check for scratch resistance. Tongue and
groove planks do not require
adhesives in fitting
Biodegradable and
recyclable, depending on
laminating process and
adhesives used
Carpet (natural) Can be made of wool, hemp, cotton or yarn from polylactic acid (PLA), a polymer derived from corn sugar. Chemical content depends on the dyeing process and the addition of stain-resistant and soil retardant materials. Unbleached and undyed product is obtainable If possible source
carpet made in your
own country or
Some people suffer allergic
symptoms associated with removal, installation and cleaning. It is advisable to schedule these activities during low levels of staff
and guest occupation. Use tacks and gripper rods for fixing rather than adhesives
Natural carpet fibre is
biodegradable and can be
composted. It can also be
‘downcycled’ to make
underlay or felt
Carpet (synthetic) Can be a wool/synthetic mix or up to 100% synthetic content. Look for carpet with backing with recycled content Some manufacturers
lease to commercial
customers, repair and
replace worn carpet
during the lease, and
take it back for
reconditioning or
VOCs can be emitted from carpets although emissions from new carpet typically fall to very low levels within 48 to 72 hours after installation when accompanied by
good ventilation
Recyclable. Nylon fibre is
a valuable polymer and
can be used in many
different applications
Carpet tiles Can be made of recycled fibres As above Appearance of broadloom but quicker and less wasteful to fit (particularly with random designs). Can be individually replaced in the event of
wear, spills or damage
Some companies lease
product and ensure that it
is recycled at the end of its
life. Only worn sections
need replacing
Ceramic tiles Made from natural clay. The firing process is energy ntensive. Tiles are available with recycled content Use locally produced
tiles where possible
Unglazed tiles can ‘breathe’ and therefore help regulate the internal environment. Can be treated with natural linseed oil and wax Can be recycled
Coir Coconut husk and therefore a useful waste product. Process involves soaking husks for long periods of time which may pollute estuaries Mainly tropical areas
such as southern India
Anti-static and easy to vacuum. Helps regulate internal humidity but not suitable for areas subject to
excessive moisture, spillage and wear
Cork and cork tiles Harvested from bark of cork oak trees every nine years. Tiles consist of granulated particles with non-resin
binders. Low impacts in production
Mainly grown in
Portugal, Spain and
Northern Africa and an
important industry.
Relatively light to
Hard-wearing, impact-resistant, good noise insulation, warm underfoot. Use low emission adhesive and ensure that dressing or sealant is environment-friendly. Easy to clean with damp mop or mild cleaners Biodegradable and largely
Concrete High embodied energy. Cement and aggregate extraction can be very
destructive to the environment
Heavy to transport adding to embodied energy Can be used without additional floor covering, and can be stained, stamped, etched, polished or coated Can be reused in road building
Corn Polylactic acid (PLA) polymer fibres from corn sugar are used in some carpeting Use tacks and gripper rods for fixing rather than adhesives Biodegradable
Cotton Choose organic cotton to ensure that it has not been farmed with intensive use
of fertiliser and pesticides
Gets dirty quickly but easy to clean Not appropriate for areas of heavy use Biodegradable
Jute Made from the stalk of the Corchorus plant Asia, mainly India Softer than other natural floorings and not so hard-wearing Biodegradable
Linoleum Made from linseed oil, post-industrial wood dust, pine tree resin and powdered limestone on a hessian/jute backing. Available in tile and roll form.
Some products contain recycled rubber, cork or plastic
Natural hard-wearing alternative to vinyl. Tiles are less wasteful to install than roll form. Gives off a non-toxic vapour which kills certain
bacteria. Use low solvent adhesive
Marble Quarrying operations are highly energy intensive destructive to the natural
High embodied energy
from transportation of
heavy materials
Easy to clean with vinegar and water solution. Cool to touch so good in hot climates Reusable and can be recycled
Medium density fibreboard
Processed woods such as MDF contain formaldehyde for which there are strict
emission guidelines
Formaldehyde emissions from the finished product must be less than 0.13 mg/m3 in air
Vinyl or Polyvinyl chloride
Check chemical content of the
product and whether toxic waste is created in manufacture. Some products available with high postindustrial recycled content
Durable, versatile, hygienic and low maintenance. Can emit substances that are linked to human health
Not recyclable or
biodegradable, may be
reusable depending on
fixing method used
Recycled products Examples include flooring from
recycled newspapers and hardwood chips, carpet from PET (post consumer content from plastic bottles) and tiles
from waste glass (light bulbs and car windshields)
Depends on resources
used to recycle materials
into product and weight
to transport
Depends on the product. Choose low impact option for fitting May be recyclable or
Rubber Can be made from natural or synthetic rubber or recycled rubber tyres. Available in roll or tile form. ‘Speckled’ designs contain post consumer or recycled products Durable, waterproof, good sound absorption, soft underfoot. Good range of colours. Look for low
emission adhesives that enable removal at end of life
Non biodegradable
Seagrass Grass grown in sea water paddy fields. Check harvesting practices and effect on ecosystems Mainly tropical in origin,
China and Vietnam are
large producers.
Relatively impermeable, anti-static Biodegradable
Sisal The sub-tropical Agave sisalana bush Brazil is largest producer.
Also grown in Kenya, Mexico and Haiti. Intensive cultivation can degrade soil quality
Absorbs moisture and helps regulate humidity. Not suitable for areas subject to excessive moisture, spillage
and wear
Slate Natural stone available in a number of colours and surface finishes. However extraction can be both destructive and
energy intensive
Widely found around the
world including China,
Wales, Spain and Brazil.
High embodied tansport
Suitable for interior and exterior use. No need to seal although sealing the
grout is recommended and sealing the tiles brings out the colour
Steel Look for more than 38% recycled steel as extraction process is destructive and
High embodied energy
from transportation
Used for low-profile raised flooring and flooring systems for cable management. Parts connect together requiring no glue or fastenings 100% reusable. Some
suppliers will buy it back
for reuse and recycling
Stone Granite, marble, sandstone,
limestone, slate or quartzite.
Quarrying is energy-intensive and can spoil the natural landscape. Some granite gives off small quantities of radon gas which can pose an issue in
buildings with limited ventilation
Source from local quarries to reduce transportation energy Varies in durability with granite being the hardest and limestone the least hard. Helps to keep interiors cool.
Marble and granite can be cleaned using vinegar and water
Terracotta tiles Unglazed tiles made from hand-formed clay and fired. Reclaimed tiles available Heavy to transport, so
locally-made products
are preferable
May need sealing with linseed oil and a wax finish Reusable and recyclable
Terrazzo Stone, glass or ceramic chippings set in concrete. High embodied energy. Can incorporate recycled
waste materials
High embodied energy
from transportation
Durable and easy to maintain. Use cement to fit Can be recycled into aggregate for road building
Underlay Usually rubber or fibre-based. Both can be made from recycled material Some rubber-based underlay can emit VOCs so check contents carefully May be recyclable depending on content
Vitreous tiles Available with recycled content which may be glass, feldspar by-product and
aggregate material
Durable, easy to clean and does not allow mould to grow. Use water-based adhesive or cement installation Recyclable depending on
adhesive used to fix to floor
Wood Look for Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) or other internationallyrecognised
certification or use  locally reclaimed wood. Choose species that renew quickly as opposed to slowgrowing
Use native species that
have been sustainably
grown as locally as
Use natural wax, linseed oil or
acrylic sealant/ varnish rather than polyurethane products with high emissions. Use minimum nails/screws and avoid glues to facilitate reuse
Consider sanding and
refinishing rather than
replacing. Can be recycled
or reused
Wood laminate Specify sustainably-produced product. Some manufacturers use waste offcuts and sawdust to heat the factory. Impact depends on glues/resins used
in lamination process
Check contents for risk of
formaldehyde emissions (see MDF). Interlocking planks require no adhesive
Ability to recycle depends
on lamination process


  • Depending on their formulation, adhesives can affect indoor air quality and make it difficult or impossible to recycle the flooring at the end of its life. Where possible, look for flooring that can be laid without the use of adhesives (e.g. tacks and gripper rods, tongue and groove or tracking systems) or for those which are compatible with water-based adhesives. If in doubt, check that the product meets environmental standards such as The Standard Specification for the Evaluation and Certification of Environmentally Preferable Flooring Management Systems (Specification SCS-EPP12-03)6 which addresses issues surrounding the installation, maintenance, restoration and removal of flooring materials and is a useful source of reference, for example, on permitted VOC-emission levels from flooring materials, adhesives and sealant.
  • Ask your supplier whether they can recommend an installer that diverts waste installation flooring material from landfill disposal back into new product manufacture.
  • Considerably more waste can be created fitting products delivered ‘on a roll’ than in individual tile form, which is worth considering. For example around 13 per cent of broadloom carpet material is wasted during installation, compared with roughly four per cent for carpet tiles.

Use, maintenance and cleaning

  • Harder flooring materials such as stone and wood can result in higher noise levels than softer coverings and this may be important. Hard floors can also be slippery when wet.
  • Consider the frequency and nature of the use to which the flooring will be put. If you need to refurbish every five years, it is not necessary to select a material that will last more than 10 years, although there are environmental benefits at all stages of the supply chain in considering longer-wearing products.
  • Maintenance and cleaning is important for hygiene, indoor air quality and appearance. Generally speaking, smooth, non-absorbent surfaces are easier to sweep and clean with environmentally-friendly cleaning products. They are also more suitable for areas where food safety and hygiene is important.
  • Ensure that your flooring material enables the use of cleaning materials with minimum environmental impact. Your supplier should be able to provider the Materials Data Sheets for the cleaning product.
  • There are a number of issues associated with cleaning chemicals including the quantities and dilutions used, toxicity, biodegradability and where waste is discharged.

Refurbishment, disposal, reuse and recycling

  • Where existing flooring is being removed, try to ensure that as much of it as possible is diverted away from landfill into recycling and reuse. A suggested target would be at least 50 per cent.

Case Study: Earls Court Olympia, London, UK
Because of the constant setting-up and breaking down of individual shows, the exhibitions industry
generates significant amounts of waste. Whether the surplus material is cardboard, brochures, plastic wrapping, electrical cabling or catering waste, much of it finds its way into landfill.

In 2002, the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) instigated The Sustainable Exhibition Industry Project (SEXI) which aims to help the industry change to more responsible practices with regard to the environment. Its detailed research revealed that over 55 per cent of all waste from exhibitions is carpet.

In response to this, E&CO Venues, formerly Earls Court Olympia and one of London’s popular exhibition spaces, is now using carpet tiles that can be left in-situ for a four-year lifespan, instead of using disposable cord carpet or hair tiles. Before making the change however, the company needed to be confident that the tiles would survive the punishing exhibition environment, and would still look as new with regular cleaning and restoration.

A six-month trial of the exhibition hall as a lorry park to simulate four years of exhibition use proved that they would. The organisers chose a random pattern design in various shades of grey. Being random it is less wasteful, quicker and easier to install and should any tiles need replacing at any stage, the dye lots do not have to match because every tile is unique.

Earlier this year a total of 30,000m2 carpet tiles were installed on a full-service basis, whereby the carpet is leased to the exhibition venue and restored and cleaned every three months. In 2010 the supplier will take back the carpet tiles with the guarantee they will not end up in landfill. Not only that, but the CO2 emissions created during the modular carpet’s lifecycle have been calculated and offset through investment in projects that reduce or reverse their impact.


Australian ‘Good Environmental Choice’ Label

Global Ecolabelling Network

Green Building Materials Guide

Greening Your Purchase of Carpet

International Flooring Sciences Resource Center

New Zealand Ecolabelling Trust Licence Criteria for Floor Coverings EC-28-05
www.enviro-choice.org.nz/specifications/EC-28 05%20Floor%20coverings.pdf

Oikos Green Building Source

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

More Information


Building Green

Building Research Establishment (BRE)

Carpet America Recovery Efforts (CARE) Carpet reclamation and recycling

Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI)

Center for Resourceful Building Technology

Forest Stewardship Council

Green Building Store


GUT Association of Environmentally-Friendly Carpets

Sustainable Flooring

US Green Building Council

We would like to thank the following for their help with this guide:

Darren Cook, Hilton International

Bob Mantle, InterfaceFlor
Brian Wilson, Starwood Hotels and Resorts

Every attempt has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article. However, the Tourism Partnership cannot accept any responsibility for actions based on this information.

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