Q: This year, now that the kids have all moved out and my husband and I have some spare time on our hands, we’ve decided to invest in various eco-revamp projects around the house. It’s somewhat of a tag-team effort: I’ve left it to him to take the lead with all those hardware store-y tasks — insulation, appliances, caulking, water-saving fixtures etc. — while I’m overseeing green beautification projects. So far, I’ve begun to zero in on the 7-year-old carpeting around the house. It’s not eco-friendly as far as I know but since it’s far-from-ancient (although I can’t say I’m still wild about the color), is it worth it to tear it up and replace it with new, eco-friendly carpeting? Should I dedicate my energy — and my cash — into something else?


An aspiring carpetgreener,


— Jana, Bozman, MT.

Hey Jana,

I really don’t want to do this, but I’m going to have to resort to an old cliché to properly respond to your question. Ready for it? Here we go: If isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Do not make the replacement of your 7-year-old, non-eco-friendly carpeting — most carpeting should last about 11 years — a top priority. Why, you ask? The main thing that makes new, so-called “eco-friendly” carpeting so “eco-friendly” — identified by the industry-created CRI Green Label/Green Label Plus – is the fact that said carpeting off gases a minimal amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The VOCs are emitted from the latex adhesive that secures the carpet fiber to its backing and creates that delightful/pungent “new carpet smell.”

Although VOCs off-gassed by carpets is less significant than, for example, paint, you’ve probably heard that they aren’t the most beneficial things to be inhaling in your home … they compromise indoor air quality and can cause health woes like nausea; throat, eye and nose irritation; headaches; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system. But given that your carpets have been around for a solid seven years, I think it’s safe to say that any health threats have passed. In fact, according to the Carpet and Rug Institute, chemical emissions from carpets dissipate within 24 to 48 hours. You’re in the clear, Jana — any health threats posed by your non-eco-friendly carpets are long gone.

And please don’t let the guilt of having petrochemical-based nylon or polyester fiber carpeting in your home get to you. It stinks (well it did) but I advise that you live with it for a few more years. The eco-police aren’t going to come arrest you. Tearing up that now-benign carpeting before its expiration date creates unnecessary waste. Although an ungodly amount, billions of pounds, of carpeting is sent to landfills each year, carpet recycling is on the rise thanks to proactive efforts by the carpet and rug industry. According to the 2008 Annual Report issued by Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), 292.4 million pounds of carpeting was diverted from landfills in 2008 with 243.4 million pounds being recycled. This amount of saved-from-the-landfill carpeting has resulted in 238,000 tons of greenhouses gases not being released into the atmosphere. Some pretty staggering numbers, eh?

When it does come time to replace your carpeting, Jana, making an earth-conscious purchase is easy peesy. Keep an eye out for the CRI Green Label/Green Label Plus that I mentioned above as well as non-industry issued certification systems. Again, CRI Green Label/Green Label certification guarantees that new carpeting meets industry indoor air quality standards and won’t leave you fatigued or yakking from chemical off gassing but it does not mean that the carpet itself contains recycled content or sustainable fibers. On that note, thanks to carpet recycling efforts, it’s much easier to find new carpeting manufactured with post-consumer carpeting materials instead of purely virgin, synthetic fibers created from nonrenewable petroleum. There’s also quite a bit of carpeting out there containing fiber made with recycled polyethelene terephthalate (PET), the kind of plastic found in soda bottles. About 40 recycled 2-liter soda bottles can make a square yard of new carpeting. And don’t fret, it’s plush, not plastic-y.

And, it goes without saying, look into recycling your old carpeting. It’s not the easiest process at this point given the complex makeup of carpeting but perhaps when you do replace it in a few years’ time it will be a more widespread practice. The easiest thing to do is talk to your dealer about take-back programs and recycling efforts that will help keep your old carpet far away from landfills and support a closed-loop manufacturing process. The CARE website is a stellar resource to learn more about this process and learn about companies that are active on the carpet recycling front.

There’s a lot of good info out there to look into, Jana, and I hope this helps gets your carpetgreening juices flowing. In the end, the message I want to get across is simple and can apply to other aspects of your home beyond carpeting: If something you purchased a few years back isn’t “eco-friendly” but is still totally functional and not causing any immediate harm to your health, the planet or your finances, don’t discard and replace it. But when the time does come to replace, make sure you’re informed of the eco-friendly options out there. Capiche?

-- Matt

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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