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"Green" flooring, including cork and bamboo

There are a number of flooring types that are considered environmentally friendly, and the field is growing every year. Some options include concrete that is mixed with recycled wood products and recycled tile or stone. The three most popular and readily available "green" flooring choices, however, are cork, linoleum and bamboo.

Cork flooring is a relatively new entrant to the general flooring industry, although it has been available since the 1920s when Frank Lloyd Wright used it in his designs. It is relatively inexpensive and versatile, looking like wood or colored tile, depending on how it is manufactured. >Cork flooring is made of the bark of the tree -- and the tree doesn't have to be cut down. The bark grows back in about nine years. Cork flooring is generally 1/8" to 1/2" thick, depending on type and quality. It is resistant to dents and scratches, but can be susceptible to moisture and stains. It is generally installed in a floating style and can be placed over nearly any surface, including those that are uneven, and it can be a do-it-yourself process. Cork is affordable (*est. $4 to $10 per square foot), soft and quiet underfoot, earth-conscious and stylish. Natural Cork & More is a major supplier of cork flooring.

Linoleum was invented by a British rubber company in 1860; it's composed of natural ingredients, including linseed oil, pine resins, sawdust, cork dust and limestone attached to a jute backing. Linoleum contains no chlorine or plasticizers and is nearly completely biodegradable. Linoleum is resistant to dents, UV fading and moisture, and is inexpensive, with a price tag similar to that of vinyl. Despite its durability, linoleum is very thin, ranging from 3/100" to 1/10" in thickness. Major manufacturers include Armstrong and Marmoleum. Costs range from about $3 to $7 per square foot, and can be glued down or floated over foam.

Bamboo is currently very popular and is often used as a more environmentally friendly stand-in for solid wood flooring. It is comparable in looks, installation and long-term maintenance, but most experts consider high-quality bamboo flooring to be more durable than wood. Considered to be a rapidly growing grass rather than a wood, bamboo is called a "green" option mainly because of it grows back so quickly. Bamboo takes only three to six years to reach harvest maturity, while hardwood options like oak and maple take more than 50 years before they can be harvested. Bamboo flooring is generally 3/8" to 3/4" thick, with high-quality bamboo flooring having a thickness of at least 5/8".

Bamboo goes through a seven-step eco-friendly process to prepare it for flooring installation. First the bamboo is harvested, and then it is cut into three to four meter strips. The third step involves milling the strips into long rectangular shapes; any waste from this process is used to make other bamboo products, such as baskets, paper, chopsticks and particleboard. Once the bamboo has been milled, the fourth step involves soaking it in a borax and water solution for up to 72 hours to kill any insects and prevent decay. The fifth step is optional carbonization to darken the color of the bamboo using pressure and steam. Many people prefer the darker color of carbonized bamboo, but the carbonization process also softens the bamboo and makes it less durable than natural bamboo. When all treatment is finished, the bamboo is kiln-dried for several days. The seventh and final step involves gluing layers of bamboo together under more than 1,000 tons of pressure. Most bamboo flooring products have between three and six layers or plies.

Although the glue used in bamboo flooring releases small amounts of formaldehyde as a gas, most options come with formaldehyde-free or low-formaldehyde guarantees. To improve ecological benefits, all sealants and waxes used on bamboo flooring should be free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Major manufactures of bamboo flooring include Natural Cork & More, Tecsun and Armstrong.

Green flooring has many of the same benefits of the other flooring types discussed, but with added environmental advantages. For further reduced environmental impact, flooring should be nailed or stapled down, as most adhesives contain high levels of VOCs.

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