Feature

Carpet versus Floorboards

G Magazine

Carpets are warm and soft, floorboards are durable and easy to clean. But which is best for the environment?

Carpet and floorboard samples in the shape of feet

Carpet or floorboards: which should you be treading on?

Credit: iStockphoto

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Twenty years ago carpet accounted for close to 80 per cent of the floor covering installed in Australia.

Though it still remains the most popular flooring material, its dominance has steadily declined: today carpet accounts for just over 50 per cent of Australian floor coverings.

Timber flooring, by contrast, is on the rise. But is this trend good for the environment?

Sourcing

Timber is a renewable resource, and if you shop smart, it can be sourced from sustainable forests or plantations.

During the production of timber the majority of energy is consumed in the drying process. In Australia, several companies have developed solar-based drying systems.

As well as emitting less greenhouse gases, solar-based drying is better for the timber.

Carpets are made from three different fibres - wool, nylon, or polypropylene - of which nylon is generally considered the more environment-friendly to create.

Nylon beats wool because, as sheep digest they produce a lot of methane - a potent greenhouse gas.

However, unlike wool, nylon is not a renewable resource, being derived from fossil fuels.

On the floor

The average carpet will stay put for between seven and twelve years.

But most carpets don't wear out. Instead, they get replaced when owners renovate or update the decor.

Given this short lifetime, it is unfortunate that around 80 per cent of used carpet ends up in a landfill.

With the majority of carpet being made from nylon, which doesn't readily break down, it will stay in landfill for a lot longer than it stayed on the floor.

The carpet industry is trying to reverse this trend. Companies like Melbourne Carpet Recyclers will inspect a carpet prior to renovation and then find another use for it elsewhere.

Other manufacturers, such as Tuftmaster, have started using their waste as resources in other products like plastic fence posts and insulation.

Floorboards have a much longer lifetime because they can be refurbished when they start to look old.

In addition, more than 60,000 tonnes of high-value timber is salvaged for reuse every year, with a large contribution from flooring.

Companies such as Melbourne's Shiver Me Timbers and Brisbane's The Big Red Shed reclaim demolition hardwoods for resale. Reclaimed floorboards are so popular that the demand cannot be met.

However, not every type of wood can be reused. Some types splinter and crack easily, preventing their removal. So if you're laying new floorboards, check that you've selected timber that's suitable for reuse before you put them down.

Energy bills

Carpet may be a wiser investment if you live in a cool climate.

It can help reduce the energy bill by eight to twelve per cent by acting as an insulator, keeping in the warmth; up to 20 per cent of heat loss can occur through uninsulated floors.

But carpet has that pesky need for vacuuming. Over the course of a carpet's lifetime, you will use a few hundred kilowatt-hours of electricity keeping it clean.

On the other hand, it's possible to keep floorboards free of dirt and dust just by sweeping, along with the occasional mop.

The verdict

This isn't a tough one.

Floorboards can be sourced from sustainable forestry, last much longer, and are easily recycled. This makes them the better option for the environment.

Still, there are reasons you might prefer carpets.

As well as the soft, warm feeling under your feet, carpets can also help block out noise and reduce your heating bills.

If you are going to buy carpets, look out for the Carpet Institute of Australia's Environmental Classification Scheme.

Launched in late 2007, the scheme assesses the environmental impact of a carpet's materials and manufacturing.