Can Carpeting Be Green?

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Can Carpeting Be Green?

An investigation into the reasons that green building experts shun carpeting

Posted on Jul 28 2017 by Martin Holladay

In the green building community, carpeting has a bad reputation. While hardwood flooring is the honor student who sits in the front of the class, carpeting is the kid in the back row, shooting spitballs and ignoring the teacher.

Does carpeting deserve its bad reputation? Or has it been unfairly maligned?

The case against carpeting

I’ve assembled the seven most common reasons that are used by green building experts to argue against carpeting.

Carpeting absorbs water and can therefore harbor mold. Carpeting is hygroscopic, and once it gets wet, it stays wet for a long time. Since mold needs a damp environment to grow, it loves damp carpeting.

Carpeting harbors dust mites and pet dander. These substances don’t bother everyone, but they can trigger symptoms in people with allergies.

Carpeting lowers indoor air quality (IAQIndoor air quality. Healthfulness of an interior environment; IAQ is affected by such factors as moisture and mold, emissions of volatile organic compounds from paints and finishes, formaldehyde emissions from cabinets, and ventilation effectiveness.). This association is vague, but one document explains that the reduction in IAQ is due to “mold spores, dust mites, dirt and other allergy-producing substances” as well as “the synthetic fibers in carpet.” For the record, there is no evidence that dirt causes allergies; in fact, there is considerable evidence that exposure to dirt lowers the chance of allergy development. Most Americans tolerate synthetic fibers, since these fibers are used to make clothing.

According to another source (Green From the Ground Up), carpeting can “off-gas” and collect “chemicals that are tracked in from outdoors.” The book doesn’t provide further details, but it makes sense to conclude that people who spread pesticides on their lawn will probably bring some pesticide residue indoors on the soles of their shoes.

Carpeting is associated with sick building syndrome. The causes of sick building syndrome are in dispute, but some studies have shown a correlation between sick building syndrome and carpeting; see, for example, “A Longitudinal Study Relating Carpeting With Sick Building Syndrome” by Dan Norbäck and Margareta Torgén.

Carpeting requires frequent cleaning (and is difficult to clean). According to this argument, carpeting burdens owners with high maintenance bills.

Carpeting doesn’t last long. Like the previous point, this is an economic argument. Since carpeting doesn’t last long, its cost per year of life is high.

At the end of its life, carpeting usually ends up in a landfill. This is an environmental argument: old carpeting take up a lot of room in our nation’s landfills. To address this problem, the carpet industry has created a recycling program called the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE). According to the most recent annual report issued by CARE, only 15% of discarded carpeting is recycled.

Not for bathrooms or kitchens

While some of the positions taken by the anti-carpet crowd are arguable, almost everyone agrees on one point: Carpeting is a bad idea in bathrooms and kitchens (since floors in these rooms often get wet).

What about basements? Opinions about carpeting in basements are all over the map. Here’s the advice we give at If you want to install carpeting on your basement slab, make sure that there is a continuous horizontal layer of rigid foam insulation under the slab. The rigid foam isolates the slab from the cold soil below, greatly reducing the chance of condensation and moisture accumulation. (In a retrofit situation, it’s also possible to install a horizontal layer of rigid foam above a basement slab. In that case, the foam insulation is usually covered by a layer of plywood or OSB.)

Is wool better than nylon?

Some green builders argue that wool carpeting is preferable to nylon carpeting. Although I’ve read this advice in several documents, I’ve never seen any justification for the advice.

Presumably, some builders prefer fibers that come from sheep to fibers manufactured from fossil fuels.

Green labels for carpeting

The most important green certification program for carpeting is the Green Label Plus program administered by the Carpet and Rug Institute. To be eligible for the Green Label Plus tag, carpeting must meet standards for maximum VOCVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production. emissions and formaldehydeChemical found in many building products; most binders used for manufactured wood products are formaldehyde compounds. Reclassified by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004 as a “known human carcinogen." emissions.

If you decide to install carpeting in your house, it makes sense to look for products with Green Label Plus tags.

If you are involved with a commercial construction project seeking LEEDLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. certification, it’s worth knowing that Green Label Plus carpeting will earn you a LEED point.

Area rugs are easier to clean and replace

If you like the idea of a soft floor covering, one compromise is to use an area rug — perhaps a traditional hand-knotted carpet from Asia — instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. When it’s time to clean this type of rug, you can throw it over the clothesline and whack it with a rug-beater.

Or you can wait for a cold winter day with fresh snow. Place the carpet over an area of clean snow and stomp all over it. Pick it up, turn it over, and move it to a new snowy location. Stomp on it again. This method of carpet cleaning is a lot of fun.

The bottom line

While some of the arguments against carpeting make sense, others have little factual basis. From an environmental perspective, the biggest problem with carpeting is the landfill problem. If you need to dispose of old carpeting, try to locate a recycling center that will accept it.

If members of your family have allergies, you probably don’t want wall-to-wall carpeting. If your family is allergy-free, go ahead and install whatever floor covering your prefer. Just remember to keep it clean and dry.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Crawl Spaces vs. Skirts.”

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  1. Peter Yost

Aug 2, 2017 12:39 PM ET

Green carpeting

Keeping carpet clean is the biggest negative. It needs frequent vacuuming. Dirt, pollen, and other contaminants provide a food source for mites, fleas, and other small life forms. The higher the pile, the more difficult the cleaning. The padding that typically comes with carpet installation is potential source of VOCs, even though it may include recycled content. Because nylon carpet is so resilient, it should be clearly identified as being recyclable. Interface was first in producing such a product, but others have followed suit. Ideally, you don't want to "own" the carpet, but use it.

Aug 2, 2017 3:21 PM ET

Edited Aug 2, 2017 3:23 PM ET.

Wool vs. Synthetics
by Home Energy Advisor Community Energy Challenge

Although I do think emitted chemicals and VOCs is a reasonable concern for synthetic carpeting, I think the clearest benefits of wool over nylon is more a matter of the inherent properties of wool. It apparently has a proven ability to absorb and desorb moisture, and to permanently chemically bind and (eventually) render inert common harmful building chemicals like formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxides. These benefits are in addition to the more obvious advantages regarding lower impact life-cycle compared to fossil fuel manufactured products (lower embodied energy, greater recyclability, and even biodegradability).

Aside from the abstract from the Journal of Materials Science, the links below are mostly referring to wool as an insulation, but I don't see why properties would differ for wool carpeting.

No doubt wool is much more expensive, and plenty more research should be done, but there is definitely justification for advising to use wool over nylon.

Lee Laney
Home Energy Advisor, Community Energy Challenge

Aug 3, 2017 12:10 AM ET

Also, wood floors are not commonly made by child labor
by Kathryn Oseen-Senda

So if you decide to get a hand knotted wool rug, make sure it's certified free of child labor (

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