As eco-friendly design becomes more important for the health of building occupants and the planet, it’s up to all of us to carefully evaluate materials. The benefits of a particular building material may suddenly pale when its environmental impact is known. Luxury vinyl tile, or LVT, a now popular flooring option, is one material in which its effects on the environment should be weighed before purchase. There are some serious environmental consequences with LVT that every designer and consumer should consider.
All About LVT
Sheet vinyl flooring was introduced after WWII. It was superior to then-popular linoleum flooring for its moisture and chemical resistance advantages. In the 70’s, plank vinyl flooring was introduced so it would more closely resemble wood flooring. With technology advancements, vinyl flooring is now 100% waterproof and looks extremely realistic. Today, the vinyl tiles are known as luxury vinyl tile and from afar one might even think it is real wood or stone. LVT has a fairly good cost point, is easy to install and can withstand hardy cleaning agents. But while LVT looks good on paper, the material leaves much to be desired when considering how it is manufactured. And, those hardy cleaning agents may need to be rethought as well.
LVT is composed of four layers: a urethane or aluminum oxide top layer, a photographic film layer, a protective color vinyl layer and a sturdy vinyl backing. Proponents of LVT will note its durability and affordability, but rarely are its effects on the environment sited. That’s because LVT is more damaging to the environment than you might think.
I first became aware of this from the TedMed, “Why hospitals are making us sick,” presented by Robin Guenther, principal at Perkins+Will and a Senior Advisor to “Health Care Without Harm.” Hospitals are full of vinyl flooring, and hospital workers account for 40% of all adult occupational asthma, an issue linked to the cleaning chemicals used to clean the vinyl flooring. But there is more. Vinyl manufacturing is done in chemical manufacturing plants located on the Mississippi River in Louisiana in a place that is known as ‘petrochemical corridor’ or Cancer Alley. This area of Louisiana is home to many chemical manufacturing plants including those that produce vinyl. Ninety one percent (91%) of residents report health problems linked to chemical exposure.
LVT delivers on durability but at what cost?
LVT aesthetics have greatly improved, it is durable and allows for intensive cleaning but its impact on the people who live in the communities where the vinyl plants are located is alarming. There is much to weigh when selecting a building material but its production should not cause harm to a community’s health. Even if a sustainable or green building material is not on the must-have list, some consideration should be given to this issue.
LVT is made from polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. PVC is hazardous to both the environment and human health. There are many reasons for this. First, the production of PVC causes the release of toxins into the environment. Notably, it releases dioxins, which are highly toxic compounds that pollute the environment and can cause serious human health problems. Dioxin is considered one of the most highly carcinogenic pollutants. It has the potential to be released during the vinyl manufacturing process, and then again if the flooring product is incinerated. Due to a lack of viable PVC recycling options, most vinyl floors will end up in a landfill where there is a high probability of incineration.
While it can be recycled, this process is difficult due to the high levels of hazardous additives present in the material. Today, less than 1% of PVC is recycled. According to Greenpeace, the main methods of PVC disposal are incineration and landfilling, neither of which are sustainable options. Currently, there is no safe way to manufacture or dispose of PVC.
Another issue is the phthalates that are added to PVC to make it softer and more pliable. There are many types of phthalates, some of which cause cancer and others are endocrine disruptors. Some manufacturers are working to reduce the amount of phthalates and toxic emissions but there is a real gap in what is considered safe and research data is mixed depending on who is publishing the report. The EPA and U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) have both issued studies and reports showing alarming levels of dioxins in the blood of residents that live in the ‘petrochemical corridor’. A university study found residents were 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from a whole host of health problems.
Environmentally Friendly Alternatives to LVT
LVT has many red flags that should make anyone pause. When it comes to sustainable flooring options, there are plenty to choose from. Materials like reclaimed wood, cork, stone, tile, wool carpet and natural linoleum are possible considerations.
Reclaimed wood offers beauty, sustainability, biophilic elements and meets indoor air quality low-VOC requirements. With proper care and maintenance it will last for years and years. Unlike LVT, scratches in wood flooring can be repaired. When you consider that most LVT is engineered to look like wood, why not use the real thing? No living trees are destroyed with reclaimed wood, and reclaiming the wood helps the local environment in numerous ways. You also won’t find reclaimed wood on the Living Building Challenge Red List like you will PVC.
Reclaimed wood can achieve a wide variety of different aesthetics, and it looks great in all kinds of spaces from formal offices to laid-back restaurants. In addition to being an excellent green building material, it also enhances human health. Featuring low-VOC finishes, reclaimed wood adds a healthy biophilic touch to any space.
While LVT may be viewed as durable and withstand intense cleaning, it comes with too many environmental hazards to be a conscientious choice. Green material options that are nontoxic and sustainable, even if they require a bit more attention when it comes to care and maintenance but cause no harm, are an ethical choice. If you’re considering LVT, please first take a look at reclaimed wood flooring. If reclaimed wood doesn’t fit your needs I encourage you to investigate other sustainable options.