The Environmental Impact of Flooring Materials and the Concrete Alternative
Every year, a little more than seven billion square feet of carpet and carpet padding end up in landfills in the U.S. Of all the flooring materials currently available, carpet comprises 50 percent of the flooring market and on average it is replaced every five to 11 years. In Hawaii, where land resources and landfill space is very limited, waste flooring materials can have a significant impact. Much of the refuse going into our landfills originates from construction and renovation projects, and some of the used flooring materials are shipped to the mainland for disposal. This cycle of import of new materials and export of waste flooring materials has serious implications for energy use and effects on the environment.
Flooring materials: from Cradle-to-Grave
The concept of “cradle-to-grave” analysis re-quires us to consider all of the material and energy inputs that are required for the resourcing, manufacturing, transportation and installation of a flooring material (cradle) and the removal, disposal and replacement of that material (grave). With this analysis we can estimate what impact these activities will have on the local and global environment, from landfill requirements to greenhouse gases and carbon footprints. Below are some typical questions addressed in a flooring material cradle-to-grave analysis:
What natural material resources are being harvested for the manufacturer of the flooring materials, and how do those harvest practices affect the local environment where the raw materials are obtained?
Does the use rate exceed the replenishment rate, eventually depleting the resource?
How are the raw materials transported to the manufacturing facility and what are the energy inputs, greenhouse gas outputs and landfill impacts?
How much energy is required to operate the manufacturing facility?
What are the greenhouse gas and landfill impacts resulting from manufacturing the flooring materials?
What is the carbon impact from the fuel burning in all the forklifts, trucks, trains, planes and barges required to transport the flooring material from the manufacturing facility to the site of installation?
What is the energy and carbon impact resulting from installation because of mixers, saws, installation equipment and transportation of personnel to and from the project?
How much packaging material is discarded in local landfills?
What are the cleaning, shampooing, vacuuming, waxing, stripping, re-waxing/refinishing products, volumes, procedures, waste outflows and energy consumption?
What are the energy, transportation and human resource requirements to remove the flooring material?
What is the landfill impact and carbon impact resulting from the removal of a flooring material?
Now that the old flooring surfaces are removed, what material will replace it and what are the cradle-to-grave costs associated with the new material?
The sum of the answers to these questions determines the global and local greenhouse gas, carbon and landfill impact. The financial cost over the structure’s lifetime for repeated floor replacements is significant as well. A typical structure that has a life expectancy of 100 years could have as many as 15 to 30 carpet replacements, and four to five replacements of other types of flooring. Several solutions to this issue are available, including reducing consumption and buying more sustainable products. Clearly, the best solution is to decrease the use of flooring materials altogether. But how can we do that?
Concrete as a finish floor material
At Lokahi Concrete Polishing we admire concrete and its unique abilities. We know that for centuries, concrete has been the foundation of all construction activity on the planet. Structural and architectural in function, concrete is everywhere. Chances are, if you are standing on a carpeted, tiled or wood floor right now, there is concrete beneath your feet.
Now, concrete can be used as a finish material, not just as a base material over which one places carpet, tile or wood. Concrete can be diamond-polished, colored and honed to be a lustrous, functional, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing material. Like people, concrete may have subtle variations that impart a unique beauty and character. Concrete is an inexhaustible natural resource, and its durability will allow a single installation to endure for the lifetime of the structure. By using concrete already in place and refining it for use as a finish floor material, we can save time, money, conserve resources, lessen the carbon footprint over the lifetime of a structure and in the process, make our islands more sustainable.
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