How to Choose an Eco-Friendly Rug

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Tuohy
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I became obsessed with eco-friendly floor coverings when planning the nursery for my first child. The idea of putting anything in the room that might “off-gas” (release) chemicals or in any way impair the development of my soon-to-be bundle of joy was terrifying to me. (If you’ve been a new parent you’ll understand the somewhat irrational terror I’m describing).

However, it turns out my fear wasn’t so irrational. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, air pollution indoors can be worse than outdoors, even in the largest and most industrialized cities. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer, and those who are indoors for long periods of time are at higher risk. A baby’s immune, hormonal and nervous systems are still developing, meaning environmental pollutants affect them more than they do adults. Consider that babies spend 16 to 18 hours a day in the nursery, and the importance of optimizing the air quality in your home becomes clear.

Many factors contribute to temporary indoor air pollution, from burning a gas stove to smoking tobacco. But what you might not realize is that your furniture and furnishings also contribute to indoor air quality. These items can off-gas, and some do so continuously. Selecting floor-coverings such as rugs and carpets that are not treated with chemicals or made from materials that will off-gas is the best way to mitigate this. Generally, area rugs and carpet tiles are preferable to wall-to-wall carpet.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when shopping for rugs that will help you achieve clean air inside your home:

1. Steer Clear of Synthetic
Traditionally, carpets and rugs have been made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers that off-gas volatile organic compounds. VOCs include a variety of chemicals known to be responsible for the short- and long-term adverse health effects associated with poor indoor air quality.

2. Choose Natural Materials
Instead of synthetic, opt for carpets and rugs made entirely from natural materials that won’t off-gas. Most natural materials are biodegradable and recyclable, meaning they won’t end up in the landfill. Wool and organic cotton (non-organic cotton is treated with pesticides, and these chemicals could still linger on the materials in your home) are obvious choices, but don’t discount plant-based natural fibers such jute, sisal, bamboo and sea grass. Here’s a list of the most common natural materials rugs are made from:

Made from the fleece of sheep and other animals, wool is the ultimate sustainable fiber, as it is renewable and abundant. 
Pros: Strong; can be dyed any color; naturally stain-resistant; flame-retardant 
Cons: Expensive; difficult to clean

Jute (burlap) 
Made from the stalk of jute, a rain-fed plant found in India and Bangladesh, it is fast growing, renewable and requires minimal fertilizer and pesticides. 
Pros: Unlike most plant-based fibers, jute is very soft; it is also very durable 
Cons: Can only be spot cleaned; may ‘shed’ slightly; easily damaged by sunlight and liquid

A jute rug

Made from the Agave Sisalana plant, native to Mexico, Sisal is hardy, fast growing, long living and renewable. 
Pros: Flame-retardant; durable; very strong and absorbent 
Cons: Scratchy and coarse; water can stain it; spot clean only; prone to fading in direct sunlight; one of the most expensive natural fibers

A sisal rug

Sea Grass 
Made from a flowering plant grown in saltwater marshes. 
Pros: Water-resistant; durable; easy to clean; smooth finish; easily renewable resource; less-expensive than Sisal and Jute 
Cons: Can’t easily be dyed, so limited color choices; may start to fray and shed; quite hard (more floor-like than rug-like); not very absorbent

A Sea Grass Rug

Made from the outer husks of coconuts. 
Pros: Very durable; wiry and mildew-resistant; easily renewable resource 
Cons: Very coarse; really only suitable for a doormat/entryway rug

3. Look for hidden VOC’s
Once you’ve chosen your natural rug, check whether the material has been treated with chemicals or pesticides during its lifespan, and if it uses glue, check if it’s chemical free.

4. Be Wise about Backing
While the rug may be natural, the backing or rug mat isn’t always. Natural latex is preferable to foam rubber, synthetic latex or plastic, all of which can off-gas chemicals.

For help with all of these decisions, look for the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus certification and check their website for further information.

Other Green Factors 
Consider source, energy and lifespan when shopping for an eco-friendly rug.

Clearly, natural products have both health and environmental benefits, but being “green” isn’t just about choosing the product with the highest “green” score. More and more it is about sustainability. It is important to weigh all the factors to make the best choice for the environment. For example, when you factor in energy use in the production and shipping of a product, buying a secondhand synthetic rug from a thrift store in your neighborhood is actually more eco-friendly than shipping a 100 percent jute rug from Africa. With any purchase, consider carefully the source, energy use and lifespan, and you will be helping the planet in your own small way:

Source: Does the material come from a sustainable, renewable source? Or is it made from a rapidly diminishing natural resource like oil?

Energy: Consider the energy used to produce and deliver a product. The less energy, the less strain on the planet’s resources. Production of nylon carpet requires a huge expenditure of energy, largely because nylon is manufactured with petroleum-based products.

Life Span: Consider how long a product will last you. If you are looking for an entryway rug where there will be heavy traffic, it may be better, environmentally speaking, to buy one synthetic rug that will last 20 years, as opposed to buying ten organic cotton rugs over the same time period.

As with many things in life, being green is all about balance—finding what works best for you and your family, and determining what will have the smallest impact on the planet and the best impact on your family’s health. Hopefully these tips will help inform your area rug purchasing decisions.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about green homes and interior décor for Home Depot. Jennifer provides eco-friendly advice and tips on appliances, energy usage and interior home products, including carpeting and rugs. A collection of Home Decorators indoor rugs from Home Depot are available online.

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