The largest environmental impact of wood flooring is the harvest of trees. The hardwood flooring industry produced $1.9 billion in products in 2005. And the demand is not expected to decrease, due largely to the perceived value wood floors offer home buyers and sellers. In a national survey, 90 percent of real estate agents said that houses with wood floors sell faster and for higher prices than houses without wood floors.
The harvest of trees negatively impacts the earth’s biodiversity when habitat is destroyed. It also affects the earth's ability to absorb greenhouse gases. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and "exhale," or release, oxygen. It's estimated that an acre of trees can grow 4,000 pounds of wood per year while consuming 5,800 pounds of carbon dioxide and producing 4,280 pounds of oxygen.
Trees are considered a renewable resource, particularly when timber companies practice reforestation. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the US forest products industry actively replants harvested areas, with net annual growth of trees exceeding harvests and losses to insects and disease by 50 percent each year. This is not true, however, if wood is purchased from countries, such as Brazil and Indonesia, that don’t have active reforestation programs. And even when reforestation is practiced in the US and elsewhere, it still takes a long time for trees to reach maturity (up to 50 years for hardwoods). Furthermore, many commercial reforestation efforts end up being little more than tree plantations—monoculture plantings of a single species—which does not restore the biodiversity of the forest.
Purchasing recycled wood floors does not impact the world's forests and it prevents wood waste from going to the landfill. Salvaging just 1,000 board feet of recycled wood flooring—enough for six average American homes—offsets the need to harvest one acre of forest. If local sources of recycled wood are not available, minimize your impact by choosing wood floors certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC relies on independent accredited organizations to guarantee that trees are sustainably harvested using forestry practices that maintain the diversity of native species. These practices prevent over-cutting, protect watersheds and ensure long-term forest management.
This certification is especially important with popular wood products coming from Asia and South America, including bamboo, rubber, cork and other tropical hardwoods. Because many of these wood products are rapidly renewable, demand has increased. But the Environmental Investigation Agency reports that these forests are prone to illegal and unsustainable logging. FSC certification is the only way to ensure wood is harvested responsibly.
Solid wood, engineered wood or laminates?
There are a variety of wood floor products on the market. Each offers environmental trade-offs between the use of harmful chemicals and saving trees.
Solid wood floors are cut as a solid length of wood, usually three-quarter inch thick, right from the tree. Because trees do not necessarily grow straight, the manufacture of this flooring can produce a lot of waste.
Engineered wood (also called composite wood) uses a thin top veneer cut from a tree. The thickness of the plank is made with plies of wood strands and particles bound together with adhesives. Engineered wood products use smaller, younger trees and 10 to 50 percent less wood material, thereby saving trees.
Laminate wood flooring accounts for most of the wood floor sales, however, laminates are not made of any solid wood. The core is compressed or bonded fiberboard topped with a layer of plastic material made from melamine, and formaldehyde. The layers are either pressed or bonded on a substrate.
Despite the obvious savings in trees, both engineered and laminate wood flooring are not necessarily considered green. Most are not FSC-certified (although look for that to change) and distributors are not always knowledgeable about the products used in their manufacture. The editors of Woodwise Consumer Guide caution against using them because the glues and binders used in manufacturing may be toxic. Also, the manufacturing process requires additional energy. Yet, in an article in The Green Guide notes that the off-gassing of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is minimal in laminate flooring and many of the adhesives and coatings used are water-based products.
Related health issues
All wood products are finished with stains and protective coatings that contain VOCs. Many are also installed using glues that contain additional VOCs.
People can be exposed to very high pollutant levels while they are using products with VOCs and high levels can remain in the air long after the activity is done. Studies of VOCs have found that levels of several chemicals average two to five times higher inside than outside.
Health effects from VOCs vary greatly depending upon the amount of chemicals in the air, time exposed, a person’s susceptibility and existing medical conditions. Immediate symptoms that people have experienced soon after exposure include eye, throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness and vision problems. Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals and may be carcinogenic in humans.
- melamine: An organic compound mixed with formaldehyde to make a resin coating.
- formaldehyde: A colorless, gaseous compound that is the simplest aldehyde. It is used in the manufacture of melamine and phenolic resins, fertilizers, dyes and embalming fluids. As an aqueous solution, it is used as a preservative and disinfectant.
- rapidly renewable: Refers to trees that reach maturity in less than 10 years.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Floor Facts
- Environmental Investigation Agency
- Build it Green
- US Environmental Protection Agency
- The Green Guide
- Annual Survey of Manufactuers - 2005, page 28
- National Wood Flooring Association - FAQs
- American Forest and Paper Association - Benefits of Wood Use
- American Forest and Paper Association - Forestry FAQ
- New York Times - Many Nations' Forests Regrow, Study Finds
- Sinkwatch - Why Plantations are Not Forests
- Rainforest Alliance - SmartWood: Rediscovered Wood Program Description
- Monthly Labor Review - Productivity in hardwood dimension and flooring
- Forest Stewardship Council
- Environmental Investigation Agency - A Guide to Burying Wood Flooring
- Build It Green - FAQ
- WiseGeek - What is Melamine
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Formaldehyde
- WoodWise Consumer Guide 2001 (page 11) Washington, DC: Co-op America
- The Green Guide - How Well Does Laminate Flooring Stack Up?
- US Environmental Protection Agency - The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Introduction to IAQ: Health Effects
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Painting and IAQ
- Wisegeek - What is Melamine
- Medical Dictionary - Formaldehyde
- Montana State University Extension Service - Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Homes
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Introduction to Indoor Air Quality