Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.
Q: I’d love to have a stone wall in my living room. Is stone-patterned wallpaper greener than installing a real one? —Farah Al Budoor
This econundrum requires comparing the lifecycles for two products as different as paper and stone. The short answer: Stone, a natural material that is renewable, recyclable, and seldom in short supply (ask any gardener of farmer) wins over paper, hands down. A stone-patterned wallpaper, made of polyvinyl (PVC) plastic, like most faux-patterned wall coverings, is about as eco-unfriendly as can be. Except, that is, if it is also treated with microban, a pesticide. (I kid you not—this exists.)
PVC is the most toxic plastic. During its manufacturing, dioxins, which are known carcinogens, are released into the environment. They eventually rise in the food chain and collect in animal fats, including human breast milk. To make PVC, a brittle plastic that is flexible enough for wall covering, flooring, shower curtains, and other products, toxic plasticizing chemicals known as phthalates are added. Phthalates, unstable molecules, readily “offgass” out of PVC surfaces, adding unhealthy VOCs to indoor air.
PVC, however, is not alone in toxic wallcovering materials. A recent study by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, found that out of 11 major brands, half contained at least one toxic heavy metal and/or chemical, including arsenic, mercury, lead, and phthalates.
Building a stone wall is far more expensive, but it if it’s solidly constructed by a skilled artisan, it will will last forever and help save energy (and therefore money) with the material’s excellent insulating qualities.
To maximize your wall’s eco-friendliness, choose stone that’s quarried or gathered from as near to your home as possible to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transporting this heavy material. Or choose recycled stone salvaged from demolished buildings. To find it, search for a local green building and renovation company. Ask local architects who specialize in L.E.E.D. (Leadership and Energy Efficiency and Design) projects. They will know who the skilled artisans are, too. In the western U.S., a good
all-around green building reference source is Ecohaus. In the East, there is Green Depot. Also, check out SustainableSources.com.
A less labor-intensive option is to order a stone-patterned custom wallpaper printed or painted on green paper. Post-consumer-recycled (PCR) and bearing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label is greenest, but Greenguard certification is a step in the right direction, and any recycled paper gives a big hug to the planet compared with virgin tree paper or PVC. See 1800Recycling.com.
Ask the following green-minded wallpaper makers about a stone pattern made with low-VOC, water-based inks and recycled paper. From our slideshow.
And there’s always DIY! Put up plain recycled wallpaper with a non-glossy surface and paint/stencil it in a stone pattern yourself.
Mindy Pennybacker regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.