Sustainable flooring

From recycled timber to bamboo, we reveal the most and least planet-friendly floors.
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  • Updated:24 Jun 2010

01 .Introduction

sustainable flooring
About 10% of our total yearly timber imports ($840 million worth) is estimated to be illegally logged timber products – mostly outdoor furniture, timber boards and decking, and pulp and paper. This timber may have come from clear-felled rainforests in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or Papua New Guinea.

In May 2009, Greenpeace issued a joint statement with WWF, Oxfam, The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), as well as timber merchants and retailers including IKEA, Bunnings and Simmonds Lumber, calling on the federal government to ban illegal timber imports.

This has yet to happen; however, some industry players have acted. Bunnings now only sells outdoor furniture that is produced from timber sourced from sustainable forests, while Simmonds uses a simple DNA system to check all their timber imports are from legal sources. Meanwhile, Greenpeace has published the Good Wood Guide to help Australians find legally and sustainably sourced timber products.

Buy recycled timber

Your best option is recycled boards. Some new plantation hardwood timbers take up to 100 years to grow, so recycled boards are a more sustainable choice. It's also an opportunity to floor with rare hardwoods that are difficult to buy now; however, they are in short supply and may cost more than plantation-grown timber. Recycled timber can be sourced from companies that specialise in reclaimed floorboards. Also, look for boards being sold from demolished buildings.

Look for FSC-certified

The next best option is certified sustainable timber. Major environmental groups recommend the global eco-label FSC, which has representatives from the ACF, The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth and Fauna & Flora International. FSC is an internationally recognised accreditation program created in the early 1990s to prevent logging of high conservation-value forests around the world. This interactive database on the FSC website allows you to search for certified products. Whether from a plantation or a native forest, FSC-certified means the timber is from a sustainably managed forest. You can find a range of timber from Australia and overseas with the FSC logo from stores such as Bunnings. Gunns Ltd, Australia's largest forest products company, has recently indicated it will seek FSC certification for the bulk of its managed native forest and plantation estate.

Australian Forestry Standard (AFS)-certified

Like the FSC, timber from Australian Forestry Standard (AFS)-certified forests adheres to sustainable principles. The AFS is recognised by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Scheme (PEFC), a global eco-label based in Europe, as well as being an Australian registered standard. While the AFS has federal and state government endorsement, however, groups like the Australian Conservation Foundation have reservations about the AFS scheme. Lindsay Hesketh, ACF’s Forests Campaigner and FSC board member, says the AFS has no on-ground certification. “It’s just desktop certification that systems are in place to do certain things. No-one actually goes to check that what is said to be happening is actually happening,” he told CHOICE.  Hesketh believes the global PEFC label also lacks on-ground auditing and stakeholder engagement, in contrast with the FSC system, where on-site forest audits happen every 12 months.

Ecospecifier's "Green tag"

Ecospecifier, an online database of eco products, has launched “Green Tag”, a new eco-label for green building materials and products. The label will appear on all types of sustainable building products found in hardware stores or building supply centres, and will rate them according to their total life cycle. The rating will include health and toxicity issues of products, embodied carbon, biodiversity impacts, efficiency of building and installation, and corporate social responsibility. The Green Tag label will appear on shelves towards the end of 2010.

Good Environmental Choice Australia

The Good Environmental Choice Label is an Australian environmental labelling program that indicates the environmental performance of a product from a whole of product life perspective. The label is awarded to products that meet voluntary environmental performance standards that have been created and assessed in conformance to international environmental labelling standards. Search the Good Environmental Choice Australia database to see what products have achieved certification.

Beware false claims

Look out for products with multiple wood layers or components, only some of which are certified with the FSC or another eco-label. Engineered timber floorboards, for example, can have a timber veneer and plywood underneath, but not all components are from certified sources. Read the certification details carefully and ask the supplier to confirm the total product is fully certified. Watch out too for false eco-labels or other green claims. Some retailers develop their own eco-labels – for example “certified plantation rainforest timber” – which have absolutely no substance or proof of any environmental benefits.
Your best approach is to ask the supplier to show proof of certification, and to purchase products clearly marked with the [appropriate] eco-label logos. If you’re employing a builder to buy on your behalf, make sure they consult the lists of certified timber suppliers on the websites of FSC, AFS, Greenpeace and Ecospecifier.

Good timbers include:

Rubberwood from old rubber trees
• Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified or Ecotimber New Guinea teak
• FSC-plantation eucalypt and bamboo, and FSC or Ecotimber taun (a type of large hardwood).

Timbers to avoid include:

• Burmese teak
• African mahogany
• Merbau
• Ramin
• Meranti


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• Embodied energy used to make the floor

 Choose the product that has the least materials. If you have timber or other hard flooring, avoid covering it with carpet, which involves significant additional materials and energy to produce, or limit it to a few rooms, or use smaller rugs or mats.

• Regular floor cleaning

One of the biggest environmental impacts of floors is the energy spent on cleaning them. Carpet is the worst culprit compared with tiles, rubber, vinyl and other hard floors because they are vacuumed every week and regularly steam cleaned. Low-maintenance surfaces such as bamboo, polished stone or concrete, or resilient finishes such as natural linoleum or cork, are better.

• Durability

The longer lasting a material is, the fewer resources are required over time. Carpets have a short lifespan – popular low-cost carpets only last five to 10 years, both because of wear and changing interior design tastes. Hard floors such as timber, stone, concrete or tiles last considerably longer.

• Floor finishes

Even if a floor is certified eco-timber, it may be finished with a high-embodied energy, potentially toxic polyurethane coating. Instead, choose a natural-oil hard-finish coating.

• Toxic emissions

Some floorcoverings are known to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals linked with health problems including damage to the nervous system, allergic reactions and cancer. Adequate ventilation can help, but may not be enough to ensure healthy air quality, so avoid these.

• The rise of bamboo

Experts believe harvesting fast-growing bamboo has fewer environmental and greenhouse impacts than harvesting timber. However, although it makes a tough, durable flooring material, bamboo is often manufactured using glue that can emit VOCs. Most bamboo floorboards available in Australia use low-emission glues (rated E0 or E1 under the Australian Standard for formaldehyde emissions), but do your research to be sure.

• Thermal mass

A high thermal mass material absorbs heat from the sun (via windows) or from indoor heating to warm the inside of a building in winter, while in hot weather shaded thermal mass can help cool the interior by absorbing heat. Floors with a high thermal mass include stone, tile, concrete, rammed earth and bricks. Covering these with carpet, linoleum or floorboards will reduce the benefits. On the other hand, carpet does provide some insulation for the floor, which can reduce heating costs in winter, as well as feel more comfortable. A concrete slab is one of the most common flooring systems and can offer benefits of thermal mass. However, concrete also has a high embodied energy. If you need to use concrete, choose a “green” concrete that contains extenders such as fly ash.

• Using carpet sustainably

Buy a second-hand carpet and have it fitted to your space. Some carpet products are made from recycled materials such as PET and other plastics; otherwise, look for sustainable natural fibres such as coir, sisal or seagrass. There are also systems that minimise wastage, such as carpet tiles that can be replaced in areas of wear and tear.

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