David Baggs is Technical Director of Ecospecifier Global and CEO and Program Director of Global GreenTag Pty Ltd, the licensed operator of the Global GreenTagCertTM Green Product Certification Program. He is a multi-award winning chartered architect with over 30 years’ experience in green building design, life cycle analysis and product assessment.
Ecospecifier and Global Green Tag
Knowing the physical characteristics of a product is essential but it’s only part of the picture. Investigating the broader use for a product is critical to get the best health and environmental outcomes.
Global GreenTagCertTM Certification is your mark of confidence in selecting eco-products you can trust to deliver the healthy and green performance you want in your home. It is an Australian developed system with a global focus, that also meets rigorous European and Internationals Standards.
The program is an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) approved National Certification Mark that uses life cycle analysis to certify green building materials and a wide range of other products and technologies that looks at the impacts of the products from ‘cradle to cradle’ .
The Global GreenTagCertTM program is independently operated from Brisbane and is recognised by both Green Building Council (GBC) of Australia and New Zealand GBC.
It certifies products from some of the world’s largest and most iconic green companies, yet works with many emerging local companies to help their green products stand on both the local and world stages.
Global GreenTagCertTM works with ecospecifier.com.au to make your choice of green products simple.
Common environmental and health issues
The Ecospecifier ‘Eco-Priorities Guides’ provides information on how to decide which criteria are most important to you (e.g. greenhouse impacts, human health impacts, pollution impacts) for any given product and application.
Eco-Priorities help you decide what product to buy or use by presenting the key issues about what makes a product ‘green’ or not. As a general rule the greater number of beneficial features a product has, the stronger its environmental and health performance. (although to tell the full story it’s best to refer to a life cycle analysis (LCA) assessment e.g. the Global GreenTag ecolabel).
Paints have some surprisingly toxic and environmentally damaging components. Many conventional paints are responsible for Painter’s Syndrome and Sick Building Syndrome. The UN International Agency on Research into Cancer (IARC) categorises painting as a “hazardous profession”. But only recently in Australia has the effect of paint toxicity on human health during and after application been recognised. Unfortunately, the toxicity and biodiversity impacts of paints on the environment are not well known — but they should be.
Paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and whitening agents that can have a harmful effect on the human body and our environment.
The good news is that now less harmful paints are being produced and you have more green alternatives to choose from.
Plastic in paints
Acrylic, polyurethane and epoxy paints are plastic based, are usually derived from petroleum and are more harmful to the environment than plant-, casein- or mineral-based paints.
√ The alternative: Plant oil paints
Some new paints are made using plant oils. These are not common yet, but they are beginning to appear more frequently. These paints made from plant oils are typically greener solutions than petrochemical ones. Search online for “plant-based polyol paints Australia”. Plant-based acrylics are not available in Australia yet.
Volatile organic compounds
Paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have various health impacts depending on the time and extent of exposure. Effects range from central nervous system problems like dizziness and loss of concentration to more profound long-term effects such as cancer and, in extreme cases, liver damage.
Paints are generally classified as solvent based, water based or solvent-less. Solvent-based paints contain more VOCs by weight and most water-based acrylic paints contain approximately 6% VOC. While this doesn’t sound like much, it is still too high for human health. Natural oil-based paints can be high in VOCs but healthy people can process them.
√ The alternative: Low-VOC paints
- Natural paints: Mixes with no VOCs based on lime, cement, silicate mineral and casein (a milk protein).
- Low-VOC paints: Modified, healthier low-VOC acrylic and low-VOC urethane and epoxy paints. (Ask your local paint retailer or search online.)
- Hybrid finishes: For products painted in the factory (like furniture) and wooden or bamboo flooring, a relatively new generation of hybrid finishes such as electron beam (EB) and ultra violet (UV) cured finishes are available. These are solvent-less and don’t have any VOCs in them at all once hardened. (Unfortunately most timber lacquers are usually high VOC, so make sure you ask your retailer about the type of finish before you buy any lacquered or painted products.)
- Powder coating: A solvent-less healthy finish. Typically powder coating is used on metal and fused by heat into a solid finish.
Most of these products are available in Australia. To find and identify natural and low-VOC paints check with suppliers, look for certified labels or go to ecospecifier.com.au.
Durability: Some low-VOC paints may be less durable than conventional paints. Paints based on plants, lime and casein are not as resistant to scrubbing as petroleum-based plastics like acrylic or polyurethanes so are harder to clean. Lime-, cement- and silicate mineral-based paints feel rougher and are more absorbent than acrylic paints when used inside, but are highly durable and great for external surfaces.
Painting with low-VOC paints: Sometimes application techniques may be different to applying conventional paint — look for instructions on the tin.
Pigments and whitening agents
A number of paint components impact on land and marine ecosystems because of the way they’re extracted from the earth or from when paint is washed down stormwater drains.
- Pigments: These may contain heavy metals like chromium, cadmium and cobalt. Heavy metals accumulate in humans and in nature and build up in marine sediment and the food chain. Pigments with heavy metals can be avoided by careful selection of paint brands, by asking manufacturers to provide this information and by seeking out the information online (search for “paint” on ecospecifier.com.au).
- Whitening agents: These create opacity in paint and are harmful to the environment.
- Titanium dioxide is the most common whitening agent and is often a large percentage of paints. It is obtained by beach and sand mining processes that harm coastal areas and islands.
- Zinc oxide, another whitening agent, is highly toxic to marine organisms, and also accumulates in sediment and organisms, leading to the pollution of our waterways.
√ The alternative: Calcium carbonate
Calcium carbonate is a whitening agent that has no health or biodiversity impacts so is the preferred whitening agent for paints. Paints that use calcium carbonate rather than titanium dioxide are not easily identifiable but they are available.
Options for floor coverings are diverse, varying hugely in comfort, durability, maintenance requirements and cost. The range of health and environmental impacts varies as widely as the floors; however, the most important factors with floors are durability (including cleaning and maintenance requirements), health, resources and biodiversity impacts (on ecological systems and animals).
Each floor has its own durability profile relating to the hardness of its surface, its porosity or ability to not stain or accept dirt into the surface, its ability to be re-surfaced if necessary (e.g. timber and bamboo) and its overall resistance to wear and tear. Choosing a floor material is not always easy. The various physical requirements of different rooms vary enormously depending on their use; for example, the maintenance and hygiene requirements of a domestic kitchen versus hallways and stairways means flooring will have a very different task to, say, the bedroom carpet. One size doesn’t fit all.
Below is a brief overview of a few flooring products:
- Ceramic and other hard tiles: These are easily the most durable of floor finishes. The most durable tiles are porcelain as they are the hardest and least susceptible to chipping, require almost no maintenance and have no special cleaning requirements.
- Wood and bamboo:Solid wood floors laid raw are typically the most durable and flexible because they provide you with several options for finishing:
- Healthy plant based oils and waxes — these need supplementing annually by re-wiping the floors over with a liquid but that are not as hard as the usual polyurethanes. The advantage of this type of finish is that you don’t have to sand the floor to bring the floor back to new, meaning the floor will last as long as the building.
- Urethane and acrylic finishes — these are more robust but have to be sanded down and refinished if the floor scratches. Each time the floor gets sanded 3–4 mm of thickness is lost, so the floor can only be realistically sanded a few times before needing to be re-laid.
- Floating or laminated floors — these often have such a thin layer of wood veneer they cannot be re-coated. They may, however, finished in a EB or UV cured polyurethane coating, which is the most durable wood floor finish.
- Carpet: The durability of carpet depends on two things — its physical durability grading and its ability to resist staining. Often the staining issue is more important than the real durability, because carpet will often be replaced just because it’s stained even though it might be perfectly functional. As far as physical durability is concerned look for the carpet grading that tells you if it is suitable for light, medium or heavy use areas. Carpet with no grading available is likely to be short lived; even though cheap to buy, it’s the most expensive in the end. Natural fibre carpets and those with natural rubber backing are often less expensive. Carpets placed in direct sun will tend to have a shorter lifespan. It is also critical to remember that the performance of a carpet is largely contingent upon the way traffic and dirt sources are managed. If there are efficient measures in place to reduce trafficking of soil and grit into carpeted areas the potential cleaning requirements and wear will be greatly reduced. This will also increase the expected life of the carpet.
- Vinyl: Like carpet,not all vinyls are created equal; some sheet vinyls have thin foam backs and very thin surfaces, and these are likely to be more short lived than ‘luxury vinyl tiles (LVT)’ or heavier grade sheet vinyl that has significant durability. Better quality vinyls will last longer and perform better especially if they are pre-coated with a low maintenance coating in the factory.
- Linoleum and cork: Linoleumis a long-lived sheet flooring made of mainly natural materials like wood flour and linseed oil and in the past has needed a lot of maintenance like waxing. Cork has historically been bound with polyurethane binders and sealers and, while durable, needed regular intensive re-coating much like timber floors. New generation linoleum and cork products have added factory applied sealers that reduce maintenance overtime, but in heavy traffic areas may need resealing after a few times over the lifespan and the new generation cork tiles have introduced new patterns, colours and bio-based binders and sealers to improve the wear and maintenance profile of cork dramatically.
Flooring impacts on human health
Flooring is an area that generates great debate because of its importance in regards to indoor air quality (IAQ). The impacts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on IAQ depend on the particulars of the flooring product used and how, for example, you ventilate your home; whether you keep the doors and windows closed with heating or air conditioning running or open the windows and keep the air flowing through. Some issues relate to whether young children might be crawling on the floor and able to absorb chemicals through their skin.
With regard to health impacts perhaps the largest single factor to consider closely is the maintenance program. Research indicates this will dominate the emission of VOCs and allergens from the floor almost regardless of the flooring chosen. For example, if the floor finish needs recoating what is the VOC profile of the new sealer? Is it solvent based, water based or low VOC?
Almost all floor coverings have some VOC emissions at the time of installation. Special selection and taking care to ventilate the space more than usual for the first few months will minimise potential adverse health impacts.
√ The alternative: Healthy choices when it comes to flooring
- Ceramic and other hard tiles: There are few health issues with ceramic floor tiles except the adhesives and the associated VOCs. It is easy to locate low-VOC adhesives. Other tiles that require sealants e.g. stone often require solvent based sealers. Low-VOC sealers that do the job properly and are durable are not as easy to find, but they do exist.
- Wood and bamboo: When it comes to solid wood floors it’s all about the type of sealer used. Natural plant based finishes are not quite as durable but it’s typically a lot easier to recoat them with a sustainable product; sometimes this is as easy as vacuuming the floor, mopping it with the new coating, wiping the surface dry and leaving overnight. Laminated floors and floating floors are different because they are typically glued together with formaldehyde based glues. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen; it is a sweet smelling chemical that lurks in many constructed timber and joinery products. Because of this a formaldehyde testing and rating regime has been developed, called the E-rating:
- E00 is ultra-low because it is at or near the natural level of formaldehyde in wood
- E0 is very low and now often commercially available at no extra cost
- E1 is low formaldehyde but best avoided as it still emits reasonable amounts of the gas for a long period of time
Typically the difference between the ratings is the type of glues and for flooring the good news is, typically the lower the emission, the more waterproof and durable the flooring is. So in this case selecting healthy is also better value for money!
- Carpet: Most broadloom carpets can generate considerable VOCs from the synthetic rubber backing; they can also act as harbours for allergens. However, if maintained properly they can also be low allergen, clean and comfortable, although the energy and water load associated with steam cleaning, the generally recommended method to manage allergens and mites, are significant. For the healthiest selections, look for natural fibre carpets without backings and those with natural rubber or other non-synthetic rubber (often called SBR rubber) backings e.g. jute, sisal, melded fibre or carpets where the backing and pile are the same material (note these are not necessarily the most durable carpets so a trade-off might be required).
- Vinyl: Vinyl is a plasticised PVC with a complex and potentially controversial chemical make-up with a diverse source of manufacturers, quality and health impacts. The issues with vinyl relate to the types of plasticiser used. Some plasticisers such as DEHP and DOP are hormone disruptors and have been banned in children’s toys and other baby goods. Other plasticisers like DINP are not and are fine. Other chemicals include the raw materials used in the PVC plastic and are too technical to explore here; suffice it to say the outcomes can lead to cancer from contact. Now there are vinyls in the market that have been thoroughly tested and certified as healthy. Vinyls with recognised third party certification such as Global GreenTagCertTM are safe to use.
- Linoleum and cork: Linoleum and cork have always been viewed as a healthy materials and the addition of the factory applied sealers have not changed this provided that whenever re-sealing is required the recommended low-VOC sealers are used. Some cork floor tiles are now available with bio-based wear coatings, a real plus.
Health note: The above comments are intended for regular healthy individuals. Immune suppressed or allergic persons may react differently to different materials and should always test themselves with samples before making a final selection.
Disposing of flooring harms the environment
Many floor coverings will not stay in place for their actual full potential working life. Changing styles, fashions, owners, changing tastes and unusual events leading to damage often means the premature disposal of a covering. Avoid or minimise products that need a whole area to be replaced if there is damage in one area. A difficult but critical consideration for product selection is the life expectancy. If the life expectancy is short, choosing one with lower initial environmental impact is all the more critical.
√ The alternative: Recyclable floors
Choose floor materials that can be recycled: several flooring recycling schemes are now in existence. Even better than that are floors that are not only recyclable but already have recycled content in them, especially if it’s what is called ‘post-consumer’ recycled content i.e. it has been used by consumers, recycled and made into a new product. Recycled is the new black!
Renewable content is another way to reduce resource impacts. ‘Rapidly renewable content’ is even better. What’s the difference? About 30–75 years! For example, wood is a renewable resource. Yes, it grows on trees. However, hardwoods take 50–80 years to mature and must be cut down to harvest. Bamboo takes four years and only individual stalks are harvested when mature, so the plant itself doesn’t get cut down and can grow other stalks from the base for years to come. Sisal, hemp and jute have growing cycles of only 3–18 months.
- Ceramic and other hard tiles: The resource impact of hard tiles is quite low given they are sourced from plentiful clays (in the case of ceramics) or stone in the case of slate, granite, etc. Stone does not need to be fired to high temperatures like ceramic tiles do so requires less fossil fuel. Any tile that has been polished to a high sheen is also more resource and energy intensive than honed or unpolished surfaces.
- Wood and bamboo: Products with shorter growth cycles (‘rapidly renewable content’) are better overall. However, another important issue in this category is the source of the product. Australia is currently moving to ban illegally sourced woods as other countries like the UK and USA have done.Reconstructed bamboo does use an energy and people intensive process to be able to deliver the durable flooring and joinery material we are now used to seeing.
- Carpet: Broadloom carpet of all kinds is one of the world’s largest and most persistent material in landfills. In the commercial sector carpet tiles have been used to overcome the disadvantages of broadloom and some carpet tile manufacturers have been wooing the domestic market with longer pile tiles and abstract nature based patterns. Carpet tiles are a green alternative to broadloom especially since they often have major post-consumer recycled content and well-established Australian recycling schemes.
Carpets are usually branded with wear grades and it is best to use a higher grade product than a lower one because generally it will last longer and often stain less. Consider an anti-stain coating provided it has been tested as healthy. Another way to reduce the impact of your carpet is to try to find some way to reuse or recycle it at the end of its life. Some domestic carpet recycling schemes are in development so keep your eyes peeled and search engines poised.
For carpet material with a lower resource impact, renewable materials such as wool, alpaca and goat hair are good alternatives, but it gets complicated when we realise that although natural they can’t be recycled into new carpet the way some synthetics can. As closed loop carpet recycling gets going, full life cycle analysis of all the different varieties of materials within carpets will be needed to be able to sort out which is really the best long term.
- Vinyl: Vinyl flooring is a petroleum based plastic and so it does consume fossil fuels during its manufacture. LVT vinyl tiles often have inert mineral fillers and sometimes recycled content in the backings to reduce the amount of virgin plastic.
- Linoleum and cork: Linoleum and cork are made from natural, renewable materials with short regrowth cycles (two years for virgin cork) or waste by-products (linoleum’s wood flour) or post-consumer recycled content (cork recycled from wine corks). The new generation cork products even have binders and sealers based on new bio-plastics. These are both examples of great, renewably sourced products with the new corks being the stand-out sustainable products.
Flooring production impacts on biodiversity
All flooring products, including ceramic and other hard tiles, impact on the local environments where they are extracted.
√ The alternative: Go for greener flooring alternatives
- Wood: You should insist thatany wood based product must come with a third party sustainable forestry certification such as FSC, AFS or PEFC to be sure it isn’t manufactured from illegally harvested rainforest timber. A recent Australian Government report found that 30–80% of wood imported from what were essentially developing countries is illegal. Composite flooring products and solid timber such as merbau and many others should come with certification.
- Carpet: Depending on the materialsused,the biodiversity impacts of carpets can vary. Obviously all the plastics are petrochemical based and must share some of the responsibility for global impacts of the oil industry and oil spills. But even when it comes to wool carpet, sheep with their cloven hooves also have an impact on the environment by compacting soil, reducing carbon content, introducing pesticides and promoting land clearing.
Life cycle assessment ratings underway within the Global GreenTagCertTM system will soon start delivering comparative rankings for these products based on cradle to cradle analysis and a clearer picture will emerge. Alpaca and goat hair carpets and wool from improved pasture and organic farming sources (yes they do exist!) are much better all round from a biodiversity perspective.
- Vinyl: There is some concern from Greenpeace about PVC manufacture resulting in dioxin releases due to the use of chlorine in the formation of the chemicals. This may have been an issue in the past and may still be in products from poorly controlled manufacturing environments. This is a good reason to only purchase third party certified vinyl products where these potential emissions have been checked and found not to be an issue.
- Linoleum: While based on renewable materials, linseed and other ingredients aresourced from commercial large scale agribusiness suppliers. They come burdened with theannual soil disturbance of harvesting and re-planting together with chemically based agricultural fertiliser and pesticide processes potentially involved in their production.
- Cork and bamboo: These are entirely renewable and do not have annual soil disturbing or chemically based agricultural processes involved in their production. Bamboo production into composite wood substitutes does have major chemical transitions that it undergoes, but these do not have overt biodiversity impacts.
A major benefit of cork, linoleum, wood, bamboo, wool, alpaca, goat and other natural fibres like sisal, jute, hemp and natural rubber are that they are carbon sinks and will help climate change to varying extents depending on how long they stay out of landfill.