When putting together a nursery, many parents-to-be focus on choosing a cute theme. But all that poring over decals and crib sheet designs can mean we miss the importance of what’s right under our feet.
As new Moms, my wife and I asked ourselves if it’s ever a good idea to have carpet in a nursery, how to mitigate the risks of existing carpeting, and which option is best for the planet.
This post summarizes the research I did for my new family.
Carpets, landfill, and greenhouse gases
The most up-to-date figures from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that 3.4 million tons of carpeting and rugs went into municipal solid waste in 2017 alone. Of that:
- 8.3% (approximately 280,000 tons) of carpet fiber, backing, and padding was recycled
- 18% of carpet and rug waste was burned for energy recovery
- 73.7% of carpet and rug waste went to landfill – that’s 2.5 million tons! Every year!
With most carpets ending up in landfill, this means toxic carpets continue to off-gas and leach chemicals into the soil, water, and air. These carpets, typically made with synthetic materials doused in flame retardants and moth repellents, take many decades, if not hundreds of years to even begin to break down. They can release microplastics into the soil and water, create conditions for microplastic rain, and lead to adverse effects on wildlife, including fish, birds, and other animals.
Does this sound like the world you want your children to inherit? Whether you’ve chosen an ocean theme for your nursery or not, you’re probably here because you care about the heath of the planet, not just for yourself but for your kids, grandkids, and generations beyond.
As if the pollution associated with carpet disposal isn’t bad enough, many of the gases leaching out of those carpets are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that act as greenhouse gases. This means that they contribute to climate change.
Synthetic and conventional carpets and rugs also have a huge energy footprint, involve a staggering amount of water to produce, create vast amounts of toxic waste-water, and are responsible for considerable environmental pollution overall. The same can be said for the materials we select for children’s clothing – synthetic options have a much bigger impact on the planet than do natural fibers, such as hemp.
And as we know, climate change has a range of negative effects on health, thanks to increasingly volatile and violent storms, flooding, heatwaves, climate fires and air pollution, and desertification affecting food crops.
So, given the downsides of conventional carpeting, it would be wise to choose something more sustainable, right? This sounds good in principle, but in practice the EPA currently defines durable goods as “products with a lifetime of three years or more”, with just a handful of exceptions. A carpet that lasts just three years doesn’t seem all that durable to me, let alone sustainable. So, what’s the alternative?
The better choice for nursery flooring
Given the environmental impact of carpets and health concerns over the chemicals in conventional carpets, the best option for nursery flooring is… not carpet.
While carpets are soft and cozy, making them seemingly ideal for the nursery, you can get most of the benefits of carpet and few or none of the downsides by instead choosing kiln-dried, non-toxic, sustainably harvested hardwood flooring or non-toxic real wood laminate created from locally sourced wood fibre and eco-friendly, non-toxic paints. Bamboo flooring can also be a good option.
Pair these flooring choices with a soft rug made from natural fibers not treated with toxic chemicals and you’re not only saving resources, you’ll also help keep the air in the nursery a lot healthier and make for easier cleaning.
If you are set on carpeting your nursery, though, there are a few decent options for more environmentally friendly and non-toxic carpets. But before you jump at the first ‘green’ carpet, be aware of greenwashing.
Is that ‘natural’ carpet actually eco-friendly?
In many cases, even carpets and rugs made with natural fibers still contain some harmful chemicals, including dyes, stain repellents, flame retardants, and anti-moth treatments. It’s usually quite easy to identify a carpet or rug made entirely with synthetic fibers, recycled or otherwise, but ‘natural’ carpets can be a trickier proposition.
Even if the top layer of a carpet is made with wool or other natural material, be sure to check the rest of the product. Carpet backing or rug padding is often made of some form of plastic or synthetic latex, which is itself a suspected carcinogen that can contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates. Other backings might be made with vinyl, urethane, 4-phenylcyclohexene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), all of which are bad news for the health of the planet.
Fly ash in carpeting
And, rather worryingly, the carpet industry has figured out a way to use waste from the coal power industry to create carpets that qualify for prominent green building certifications. How? By loading carpet up with a filler called fly ash. This is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants and can make up 40% of come carpet tile by weight.
Carpet made with 40% recycled materials sounds great! But not if that recycled content is contaminated, which fly ash is, largely with mercury. So, if you’re looking at buying a carpet that contains a high percentage of recycled materials, check for certifications that also screen for toxic chemicals.
The bottom line
The lesson, then, is to beware clever marketing and greenwashing. Check the whole product and don’t be afraid to ask questions if the manufacturer hasn’t provided enough detail for you to make an informed decision.