Dear EarthTalk: I like the feel of carpeting, but I'm concerned about all the chemicals. What are some good non-chemical (but still soft!) options? -- Jennifer Jones, Madison, Wisc.
Modern day carpets, in all their plush and stain-resistant glory, are wonders of technology and help make our homes and workplaces more comfortable. But the typical carpet, made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers, contains dozens of chemicals and gases, including volatile organic compounds and other potential toxins -- and they can compromise indoor air quality for years on end and cause dangerous reactions in the sensitive among us, including little ones and the elderly.
Fortunately, there are many green options when it comes to carpeting and alternative floor coverings. Green Depot -- the nation's leading supplier of environmentally friendly building products, services and home solutions with 13 retail stores nationwide -- sells a lot of wool carpeting, which is typically all-natural, renewable and is the most logical option for those who want the look and feel of real carpet without the chemical impact. Wool carpeting is pricier than synthetic, but those seeking peace-of-mind might not mind paying a premium. Some leading makers of all-natural wool carpeting include Bloomsburg, Earth Weave, Helios, Natural Home and Woolshire. Wool is also a great material for rug pads, as it dampens sound, inhibits mold and provides insulation. Green Depot's favorite is Whisper Wool Underlayment.
Some other choices in all-natural carpet include sisal, coir and seagrass -- though these all-natural materials tend to be harder than traditional carpeting and as such might take some getting used to underfoot. Contempo Floor Coverings is one of the leaders in this up-and-coming segment of the flooring industry.
Another green option is carpet tiles, because small sections rather than entire carpets can be replaced when stains or other problems occur. One particularly green carpet tile manufacturer is FLOR, whose products are made with renewable, recycled and recyclable content. The company also takes back its old carpet tiles for recycling and reconstitution into new recycled fibers and backing materials. FLOR's products use some synthetic materials, but most styles meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute's "Green Label Plus" standards for low VOCs. Greenfloors.com offers yet another option for synthetic carpeting made from recycled and recyclable materials, while Mohawk's Aladdin carpet is made from recycled PET soda bottles.
While carpeting in one form or another is no doubt the softest option, cork flooring is also warm and somewhat cushy. Cork is inherently green because it's made from the bark of the cork oak tree which grows back every three years with little to no fertilizer or pesticides needed. It's also resistant to mildews, molds and other unwelcome microbes. Cork flooring is also a nice choice to "warm up" kitchen and bathroom floors. U.S. Floors offers a wide variety of cork and other sustainable flooring options.
Of course, keeping tidy is also key to a healthy indoor environment: Frequent vacuuming of rugs and cleaning of flooring can help reduce exposure to toxins like lead and pesticides that can be tracked in from outside. Using doormats and removing shoes when coming inside can also help mitigate such risks.
Dear EarthTalk: I heard that my food choices can affect the use and therefore availability of fresh water around the world. How so? -- Denise Beck, Washington, D.C.
Our food choices and the availability of fresh water are inextricably linked. The crux of the problem is that human population numbers keep growing -- we recently topped 7 billion people worldwide -- yet the amount of fresh water available remains finite. And growing food and raising livestock to feed increasing numbers of humans takes a great deal of water. Worldwide, some 70 percent of fresh water is used for agriculture. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, by 2050, two-thirds of the people on the planet will lack clean water to meet even basic needs.
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, the livestock industry is the largest user of fresh water in the U.S. and in many other countries. The billions of livestock animals raised for food around the world each year consume substantial amounts of water directly. The industry also negatively impacts the replenishment of fresh water through the compaction of soil, the degradation of banks along watercourses, the clearing of forests to expand grazing, and other factors.
An even larger issue is the water needed to grow the feed that livestock eat. Researchers for the 2006 FAO report "Livestock's Long Shadow" report that 2,400 liters of water go into the production of one hamburger, while only 25 liters are needed to produce a potato. Likewise, a cheese pizza requires 1,200 liters of water -- given the drinking, cleaning and feed needs of dairy cows -- while a tomato pizza only needs 300.
Eliminating meat consumption would be a surefire way to save vast amounts of fresh water, and switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet is one way an individual can make a big impact on water consumption.
"On average, a vegan, a person who eats no meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet," reported Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and the lead water expert on the National Geographic Society's Freshwater Initiative.
But those loathe to giving up meat entirely should consider switching to only grass-fed beef. According to Postel, it takes some 5,300 liters of fresh water for every dollar's worth of grain fed to a typical beef cow, while the water required to feed grass-fed cattle falls on the pasture from the sky, meaning it is free and does not deplete groundwater reserves at all.
"Not all burgers are created equal," she said.
Postel adds that another way to cut down on one's water footprint would be to give up or cut back on coffee: One cup takes some 55 gallons of water to make, with most used to grow the coffee beans.
Choosing organic food can also help keep an individual's indirect water consumption in check. Organic farming techniques conserve water both by using less, increasing the water-holding capacity of soils and reducing erosion as well as by not polluting nearby water bodies with run-off from synthetic chemical inputs.
Contacts: Livestock's Long Shadow, www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm; Global Water Policy Project, www.globalwaterpolicy.org; National Geographic's Freshwater Initiative, http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/about-freshwater-initiative.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.