How to Find Eco-Friendly, Non-Toxic Carpets

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Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

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Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.

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Carpet is cozy, can cut your heating bill by around 15%, and even absorbs sound, making for happier families and better neighborly relations. However, most carpeting is an environmental disaster and is riddled with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, a small number of companies make eco-friendly carpets, helping you create the hygge without the headache (literally) from off-gassing.

As more of us learn about the potential downsides of conventional carpets, interest in conscientious carpeting is growing. Consumers increasingly ask the following questions when considering carpeting for the home:

  1. What is the carpet made from?
  2. Are the materials recycled and/or recyclable?
  3. Is the carpet treated with toxic chemicals?
  4. Does the manufacturing of the carpet harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?

Below, I list some of the best companies to consider for an eco-friendly, non-toxic carpet. You might want to check out the most relevant green certifications for rugs, which also pertain to carpets.

Carpets – what to watch out for

I confess, I have some rather fond memories of shopping for carpets as a kid with my parents. It helped that the massive, sprawling carpet store had a fun foam playpit, but I also quite liked that ‘new carpet smell’. I shudder now at the thought of what we were all breathing in as we wandered through aisle after aisle of carpet samples (not to mention the horrors of that polyurethane and PVC foam pit!).

The distinctive smell to most new carpets reveals that these are undeniably bad for your health. This smell is caused by the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are classed as carcinogens. 

Don’t get complacent though if you haven’t replaced your carpets in years; older carpets are especially bad for off-gassing because they release chemicals as they degrade and they often contain chemicals that have been banned in recent years. Many of the products used to clean carpets are also potential health hazards that emit VOCs.

In addition to these general concerns over carpets and rugs, buying a new carpet raises some unique considerations.

Other carpet considerations

The energy footprint of carpets

In addition to the environmental impact of the chemicals used to make carpets, the energy footprint for a conventional nylon-based carpet is staggering. It takes the equivalent of around 80 gallons of gas/petrol to carpet a small two-bedroomed apartment and these nylon monstrosities typically end up in a landfill once they wear out and get replaced. 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that “over four billion pounds of carpet enter the solid waste stream in the United States every year, accounting for more than one percent by weight and about two percent by volume of all municipal solid waste” (R).

Allergies and carpets

In general, if you have allergies to dust mites, dust, pollen, cockroach allergens, or pet dander, carpets are likely a poor choice. Carpets also collect particle pollution, lead, mold spores, pesticides, and dirt. Carpets must be cleaned frequently and thoroughly to keep allergens and other issues to a minimum, and this can be time consuming, difficult, and expensive. Cleaning a carpet, renovating, and even walking on the carpet can make these contaminants airborne. And, if you have children or pets, they are much more likely to be exposed to pollutants in carpet. Indeed, installing new carpets has been linked to coughing and wheezing in infants under a year old (R). 

If your budget doesn’t stretch to a truly eco-friendly carpet, go for the one with the least VOC emissions. The American Lung Association recommends that you ask for the carpet to be unrolled and aired out in a well ventilated area for 72 hours before installation (R). Plan to stay elsewhere for 72 hours after installation and request that non-toxic low VOC adhesives are used. The carpet should also be able to be removed without the need for toxic chemicals.  

To keep carpets clean, vacuum at least three times a week with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter. Avoid carpeting kitchens, bathrooms and entryways as these areas tend to be damp, meaning that carpets can develop mold and mildew. Use mats outside the home to trap dirt and minimize outdoor allergens entering your house and settling in carpet. 

If you’re not fully committed to carpet, consider selectively placed, eco-friendly rugs on hardwood or bamboo flooring instead. This may be the better option to create coziness while keeping health hazards to a minimum. I highly recommend the Safavieh Hand Woven Jute Area Rug (View on Amazon). This rug is sustainable and biodegradable, and unlike almost every other company selling jute rugs, Safavieh are certified by the Sustainable Furnishings Council as having demonstrated at least some commitment to environmentally sound manufacturing and ethical labor practices.

What to do with old carpets

Of course, it’s not just your choice of new carpet you need to think about if you’re looking to protect the environment. Have you ever considered what happens to your old carpet? Most of the time, these chemical laden products end up in landfill, where they remain for decades, leaching toxins into the soil and water supply.

Some manufacturers offer a carpet take-back program. These programs will take your worn out carpeting and find innovative ways to reuse it. Interface, Mohawk, Shaw, Milliken Carpet, Bentley Prince Street and C&A all have a carpet take-back program, with carpets being recycled to create new carpet or down-cycled to create insulation or other product.

You can also check out Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a nonprofit created to oversee the recovery, recycling, and reuse of post-consumer carpet. CARE maintain a database to help you locate your nearest carpet donation and recycling partners.

Another option you might consider is not to get rid of your old carpet at all, but to give it a facelift instead. Stained and faded carpets can be dyed to give them a fresher look, while patterned carpets can be updated to match a new color scheme. You might also have a carpet re-cut to fit another room, even taking carpet with you to a new house or apartment. 

Carpet dyes are a good way to save older or mismatched carpets from the landfill, but these dyes might not be non-toxic, so check first if that’s your main consideration. Color Your Carpet is one company that offers a custom carpet dyeing service. Others may also be available in your area.

You might also want to consider carpet tiles rather than continuous carpet, especially in high-traffic areas. That way, you can simply replace worn out tiles as needed, rather than needing to replace the whole carpet.

Now that you’ve figured out what to do with your old carpet, it’s time to consider the best companies for an eco-friendly, non-toxic carpet.

Companies to consider for conscientious carpeting

Hands down, your best options for conscientious carpet and carpet tiles are these companies:

  • Interface
  • Nature’s Carpet
  • Earth Weave

Interface

Interface, Inc. is arguably one of the world’s most environmentally friendly businesses, based on its proactive approach to sustainability. Interface uses recycled materials, including reclaimed carpets and waste yarn, to create eco-friendly floor coverings in many shapes and sizes, including their Interface Monochrome Carpet Tiles. This helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating quality carpeting for residential and commercial use. 

Nature’s Carpet

Nature’s Carpet offers over 60 styles and colors of 100 percent wool broadloom carpet and wool carpet blends. Look for their Dark Green Label carpets, which are the most eco-friendly option, made with 100 percent undyed wool pile, no chemical additives or insecticides, with natural jute secondary backing, natural latex adhesive, and that are biodegradable and certified by Green Label Plus to be low-VOC.

Nature’s Carpet Medium Green and Light Green Label carpets are more budget friendly, but a little less robust in terms of eco-friendly, non-toxic status. Light Green Label carpets feature wool or wool-blend pile, stable low VOC dyes, synthetic or jute secondary backing, synthetic backing adhesive, Green Label certification for low-VOC emissions, and are insect resistant.

Earth Weave

Earth Weave makes all of its own Bio-floor carpet in the USA and were the first carpet manufacturer to use only natural materials such as industrial hemp and natural latex, all of which are 100 percent biodegradable. Earth Weave uses nothing synthetic in the face yarns, backing or adhesive.

The Bio-Floor Collection includes Dolomite, Pyrenees, McKinley, and Rainier. These are naturally pigmented undyed wool fibers and have been available for almost two decades.

In recent years, Earth Weave introduced a new line of organically dyed carpets. As wool does not take dye easily, many manufacturers use harsh chemicals to dye carpet fibers. Earth Weave are committed to avoiding such chemicals, so they developed OrganoSoftColor™, a unique system for coloring wool with an organic dye process that only uses safe ingredients. This means no off-gassing of harmful chemicals. Catskill is the first carpet in this new line of naturally dyed carpets from Earth Weave. 

If one of these three carpet companies are not an option where you live or are out of budget, the following companies offer better options than most conventional carpeting:

  • Shaw
  • Bloomsburg Carpet
  • Woolshire
  • Mohawk (Helios)
  • Beaulieu

You might also want to consider EcoWorx for carpet tiles and Tandus Centiva for carpet backing.

Chances are that whatever carpet you buy, you’ll be living with it for many years. Like choosing a new mattress, this single decision can have a big impact on the health and happiness of your family as well as the environment. 

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