Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.
Q: I would like to use an eco-friendly area rug in my bedroom that’s not too rough on the feet. Any suggestions? –Carmen Bell
There’s nothing nicer underfoot than a soft warm rug this time of year, and all the better if it’s gentle to the environment as well! As a general rule, a natural fiber area rug is more eco-friendly than synthetic wall-to-wall carpeting systems, which have backings and adhesives made with toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as styrene and 4-PC (phenocyclohexane), the Ecology Center in Berkeley reports. Plus, an area rug can be cleaned more easily and frequently.
Natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk, bamboo, soy, hemp, jute, and sisal) come from renewable resources—vastly outranking virgin synthetic materials (made from nonrenewable petroleum) on the green scale. Add eco bonus points if the natural fibers are certified organic, which means that they were grown without synthetic, fossil-fuel-derived pesticides and fertilizers.
However, some natural fibers, such as seagrass, jute, and sisal, can feel rough and scratchy. Those are more suitable in more highly trafficked areas than your bedroom. Some coarser wools and cottons are also far from soft, so if ordering online, request a sample, or ask the retailer for assurances that the carpet is soft and smooth. (They should let you return it at their expense if it’s not.)
While you’re at it, also ask whether the carpet has been treated with toxic chemical finishes and dyes. Here’s a checklist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on what to look and ask for:
- Low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- No toxic dyes
- Recycled content
- Reduced energy use (from manufacturing)
- Reduced or improved air emissions (from manufacturing)
In addition to offgassing VOCs, a rug dyed and treated with toxic chemicals can also feel stiffer underfoot. Ask for rugs that are free of chemical fire retardants (note: wool is a natural fire retardant), mothproofing, and wrinkle-, water-, and stain-resistant finishes. All of these can offgass formaldehyde, plus their manufacturing releases suspected nervous system toxicants into the environment. Also look for carpets made of fibers that haven’t been chlorine-bleached, and that are free of heavy metal dyes such as chromium. Rugs that are undyed or made with Oeko-tex or SKAL certified botanical dyes are better alternatives.
Some of my favorite green rugs:
Nature’s Carpet sells a wide selection of untreated wool carpets with natural jute and latex backings. They’ll send you samples, too.
While intended for the bath, Pottery Barn’s soft, textured organic cotton rugs are Oeko-Tek-certified.
Green Depot has a great variety of area rugs made of natural and recycled fibers and blends.
Mohawk Everstrand carpet makes some pretty, fluffy rugs from 100 percent pcr content, postconsumer-waste PET plastic drink bottles
Interface/Flor carpet tiles come in synthetics and wool and are ingeniously green. You can recycle tiles with the company as they wear out; they’ll send you a replacement.
Jute and sisal blended with hemp/linen or cotton can feel softer than the unadulterated stuff. Check out the blends at Crate&Barrel.
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.