Above all, floor finishes need to be tough and durable, that’s their job – however it’s also handy if they can be cleaned easily, so perhaps minor environmental flaws can be overlooked in favour of lifetime and cleaning costs.
(Note: If you have underfloor heating, remember many floor coverings will act as an insulator so may not be a good choice!)
There are an abundance of carpet materials available, both natural and synthetic.
Wool carpets are pleasing and practical - they are also good for sound and heat insulation, and are from a renewable source. However, they may contain synthetic and toxic dyes.
Other common natural materials include coir (coconut fibre), seagrass, jute and sisal. They are all hard-wearing, but Sisal most so. Coir has a course finish. Seagrass contains natural oils, so may be a bit slippy for stairs. See http://www.alternativeflooring.com/
However, all natural carpets are potentially treated with harmful chemicals for fire, fungal, insect, or bacteria resistance – it depends wholly on the individual manufacturer, so always check with them. It is also important to ask what the carpet backing is made of, if it has one.
Cork floor tiles are made from bark that is harvested from the tree every 25 years.
Cork comes from managed woods that once primarily fed the wine industry, and its production helps to sustain communities in poorer agricultural areas and maintain local indigenous wildlife.
Like all organic materials, cork sequesters CO2, it is reusable (if not adhesive or render-coated), recyclable as loose fill, and compostable. It is waterproof and naturally resistant to insect and rodent attack (except wasps!)
Cork tiles are chemical free - unless they have been sealed with PVC or formaldehyde-based chemicals.
Lino should not be confused with vinyl – it is made from natural materials, principally linseed oil. It is very hard wearing, non toxic, and naturally antiseptic. It is also recyclable and biodegradable.
Marmoleum, made by Forbo Flooring, is a natural linoleum product using materials from renewable sources including limestone, wood flour, pine resin, cork flour, pigments and linseed oil with a natural jute backing, that comes in a huge array of colours - see http://www.forbo-flooring.co.uk/For-Your-Home/Products/Linoleum/Marmoleum-tiles/
Rubber flooring – including recycled rubber from tyres - is very durable, and has good sound absorption properties. It is reusable, but only down-cyclable (like plastics it degenerates each time it is recycled).
It is largely non-toxic, however some rubber floors can include PVC, plasticisers or halogens – make sure to check! Even non-toxic rubber flooring will continuously off-gas, and so needs ventilation. Incineration generates toxic fumes.
Synthetic flooring materials come in a vast array of types and colours, are theoretically recyclable, easily maintained, and durable.
However, they are also from non-renewable petroleum resources, and so high in embodied energy, and non-biodegradable. Backing materials and glues can contain a host of toxic chemicals.
There are substantial concerns over the safety of PVC manufacture, use and disposal. Best to avoid!
Vinyl floor coverings contain phthalates and sometimes chlorinated paraffins, organic tin compounds and other toxic substances, some of which are known to leach out. Best to avoid!
Probably the second oldest floor covering after wood, the main advantages of tiles (be it ceramic, stone, or otherwise) is their durability and water impermeability. They are also from an abundant (although not renewable) natural source, are non-toxic, and are recyclable. Tiles work particularly well with underfloor heating, but ensure they are insulated to the walls around the room edge.
Due to mining and production, they are invariably high in embodied energy.
Wood is probably the flooring covering of choice for most people for most rooms of the house. It is of course recyclable, reusable, biodegradable, renewable, non-toxic and durable – make sure however that it is FSC certified, and ideally from the UK.
Wood sealants and finishes can produce VOCs, although eco-options are available - always check the label!
If you have underfloor heating, make sure to buy very well seasoned or better still recycled wood – otherwise it may buckle and twist if dried too quickly.
Underlay is a thin layer of cushioning fitted under carpets to increase the life of the carpet, improve comfort, and increase sound, moisture, and heat insulation.
There are many different types of underlay, many of which have been developed recently in response to those wanting toxic-free or recycled underlay materials.
Foam underlays are likely to be made from petro-chemical ingredients, with all of the issues of embodied energy and potential toxicity that come with.
Rubber underlays are more environmentally friendly, and more durable, as are those made from 100% recycled materials (so called eco-felts), or those made from felt (wool).