You know that you’d like to buy sustainable flooring for the renovation or new construction project you’re gearing up for. But what, exactly, does that mean? Having the answer to that question prepares you to make an informed purchasing decision.

What Were Yesterday’s Questions? pIn the recent past, school administrators who wanted to buy sustainable flooring asked the following questions, which obviously show concern about the product itself.

  • • What does it look like?
  • • How does it function?
  • • How good is the quality?
  • • What does it cost?
  • • What is the lead time?
  • • What percentage of the product is recycled content?
What Are Today’s Questions?

Because improvements have been made in sustainability, there is a whole new list of questions being asked by facility managers, administrators and architects who are looking for the best products. And the questions are about more than just the product. They include the following.

• Where is it made?

As a buyer, you want to know that the supplier is doing everything possible to run a sustainable manufacturing facility.“As a manufacturer, we have to ask, ‘What am I doing to the environment?’ We want to partner with raw materials suppliers who are dedicated to supporting the environment,” says Diann Barbacci, vicepresident of Sustainable Design for Lees Carpet, Greensboro, N.C.

“For example, we are an ISO 9002 registered facility, and we’re in the process of getting ISO 14001 certification,” says Barbacci.“Our products are made in Glasgow, Va. Because of our location to the Shenandoah Valley, we have high standards.”

Sharon Folliard, vice president at Johnsonite, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which makes integrated safety flooring solutions, agrees. “We recycle everything, including dust. We use laser technology to reduce offspec products, so we’re reducing the energy used in product manufacturing and reducing the amount of product that goes to landfill.

“The biggest thing we’ve recently introduced is an environmental management system that focuses on waste management internally, community involvement and pollution control. Waste management means that no waste goes to land, air or water. For community involvement, we’ve planted trees around our grounds and made a park to give back to the community,” she adds. “We also collect and use rainwater, thereby not taxing water consumption. We use engineering controls at the source to reduce pollution.”

Likewise, New York-based Amtico, which manufactures resilient flooring and is ISO 14001 registered, recycles its manufacturing waste and is working to reduce Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

And Lancaster, Pa.-based Armstrong, which makes a variety of flooring, including resilient sheet tile, has a policy to “exercise care in the selection, use and conversion of energy and raw materials, especially natural resources, and not waste them,” according to their Website, .

• How is it made?

“We ask our raw material suppliers five questions,” says Barbacci. “One is, ‘What are you doing to reduce your manufacturing impact on the environment?’ By asking questions, and that one in particular, we found a supplier that uses renewable resin in the manufacture of resin.”

“In addition, we’re always looking at ways to reduce energy consumption,” says Barbacci, “whether that’s BTUs, emissions, water usage or solid waste. Overall, we want energy use numbers to have a downward trend.”

• How is it installed?

When it comes to flooring, facility managers know that properly installed flooring is flooring that lasts longer. Specifically, if your carpet installation requires seam welds, the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI) has indoor air quality standards that the seam welds must pass for sustainability. For more information on these, and other, regulations, visit their Website at .

• Does it off-gas?

As a buyer, you want to look at all aspects of carpet’s installation for off gassing. “Here’s where, as an industry, there are a lot of conflicting views,” says Barbacci. “You certainly want to look at the carpet you’re specifying and make sure it passes CRI standards. But installation and the adhesive used in installation must also pass CRI standards.”

Additionally, the U.S. Green Building Council, which works to promote facilities that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live, has Southcoast Air Quality Management District Rule 1168, which spells out permissible VOC levels. For more information, visit . Adhering to this rule also helps you pass Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings if you want your facility LEED certified, which is a program offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. For more information, visit .

• How is it maintained?

When considering sustainable flooring, you must learn what kinds of chemicals are required to keep it clean. Flooring requiring nonenvironmentally friendly chemicals for cleaning isn’t as sustainable because, once the cleaning is completed, those chemicals are washed down the pipes, outside the facility and into the environment.

• How long will it last?

Consider this question in terms of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) recycling hierarchy. At the bottom is landfilling, which is what you don’t want to do. As you move up the chain, there are other ways to recycle, like recovering energy value.

You should only buy from manufacturers who recycle the old product that is coming off the floor, regardless of who made it, to tie in with the manufacturers’ end-of-life responsibility.

At the top of the EPA’s recycling hierarchy is using the product for the longest amount of time. For example, Barbacci cites Passmore Elementary School in San Antonio, which recently installed new carpet. “The old carpet was there for 31 years,” she says. “The facility manager took great pride in his facility. The carpet was pulled up because they were tired of looking at it, not because it was worn out. Sustainability is more than recycled content. It’s reducing the total environmental impact by using products that last a long time.”

• How is it disposed of?

Naturally, you want to be sure that old flooring is not headed to the landfill. The bad news is that a lot of noncarpet flooring products are not recycled because of — depending on the type of flooring — coloring needs, challenges with removing glue or because no one has developed a successful reclamation program yet.

The good news is that carpet is recycled. “The flooring installers we work with remove the old flooring,” says Folliard. “The installer usually has a contract with the customer. We’ve learned that, typically, the cost of taking the carpet to a recycling site is a wash with dumping it in the landfill.” So there’s no reason not to have it taken a recycling site.

Steve Bradfield, vice president of Environmental Development for Dalton, Ga.-based Shaw Industries, agrees. “Carpet reclamation is done as an ‘on request’ project because there is a limited capacity for recycling. But, we’ve made a start, and that is the most important point. It’ll gain momentum and, in 10 years, it may be much more commonplace.”

What Is Going to Happen Tomorrow?

The flooring industry is headed in two directions. The first is the biological route: using corn-based fiber to make carpet, notes Bradfield. This option isn’t ready for commercial use yet because of durability challenges. The future will see companies developing new technologies to further improve this route.

The second direction is the tech-nological route: continuing to make improvements in current production and recycling processes for all flooring types. “We cannot simply continue to do things as we’ve always done them and expect to maintain our resources and our current standard of living,” says Bradfield.