Materials: Bamboo is perhaps the trendiest green flooring option. To be sure, bamboo is not a tree, but a fast-growing grass that can be grown organically and harvested sustainably. However, there is a dark side. Bamboo is so popular that monoculture bamboo forests are crowding out native rainforests throughout Asia, damaging the native ecosystem.
Manufacturing: Bamboo fibers must be processed and pressed into floorboards and other products. While some sustainable options are available, many manufacturers use formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals as binders. Also, most of the bamboo must be imported from Asia, which involves embedded energy costs.
Lifespan: Again, bamboo manufacturers promise decades of value in a bamboo floor. Most products are too new to determine the true durability of bamboo, but many users complain about bamboo flooring easily getting surface scratches.
Materials: Wood composites are typically used for outside flooring (http://floors.networx.com)as an alternative to cedar or other traditional hardwood for decking. Best known by the brand-name Trex, composite decking is typically a mix of scrap wood fiber and recycled plastic bottles or bags. Composite decking manufacturers proudly tally the tons of plastic diverted from the landfill.
Manufacturing: Again, you have to study your options to find composite lumber that is low in VOCs and other chemicals. Also keep in mind that the composite lumber remains mold-free because of embedded chemicals that may have side effects.
Lifespan: Composite decking companies used to claim their products are no-maintenance. After a class-action lawsuit, they scaled back the promise to low-maintenance. The decks tend to fade, and may not offer the promised decades of durability. Unfortunately, the composite wood is not as recyclable as its components, and it may not biodegrade.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of flooring options. There are dozens of tile options, including some unique and creative green products such as recycled leather and waste coconut shell tiles, as well as a variety of stone, linoleum and vinyl products.
It is hard to generalize about these products, but it’s a fairly safe bet that most stone is natural, but has plenty of embedded transport energy. Vinyl flooring is typically a weak environmental choice, as most vinyl is made with petroleum products and other chemicals. Linoleum, on the other hand, is typically made with natural and renewable inputs and minimal toxins.
For the most part, we didn’t cover these choices in detail as hardwood alternatives because they are more often used in kitchens, bathrooms and other spots where hardwood is less popular. It’s also hard to generalize about carpet and laminate, which are very popular flooring options.